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Democratic Republicans

National | As Republicans picked leaders in Washington, a new battle for grassroots party control began

Issue: "Daniel of the Year 1998," Dec. 5, 1998

in New Orleans - Eight unmarked state police cars lined Bourbon Street last Wednesday night. Occasionally, slurring tourists stopped and asked the secret service cops watching the doors of Galatoire's Restaurant, "Who's in there?" "Governors." Galatoire's had closed early to accommodate visiting members of the Republican Governor's Association. Its $16 appetizers and $28 entrees weren't fooling anyone: The high-class, higher-priced restaurant was still serving up red beans and rice, crawfish etuoffee, and gumbo. Four Harley-Davidson Electraglides with ramrod-straight troopers bookended the flotilla as it eased out of the French Quarter. Even so, New Orleans remained dangerous territory. As the motorcade moved slowly through the Quarter, it passed the spot where a 20-year-old Louisiana man had died moments before-two blocks down, and around the corner from where the governors had been eating. He had been chased through the streets allegedly by his brother, then shot in the chest. The governors narrowly avoided another sort of fratricide last week in New Orleans. As Republicans in Washington were choosing their congressional leaders, party leaders meeting in the Big Easy put Republican National Committee chairman Jim Nicholson through what could have been a messy coup. Like other Republican leaders, he has been criticized for his role in the party's losses in the mid-term elections. Seemingly fearful of losing his post, Mr. Nicholson warned prior to the meeting that any opposition would cause "turmoil or a bloodbath." What likely won't survive is the autonomy he and past RNC chairmen have enjoyed. The price he paid was his agreement to allow others more say in running the party. The governors were close to picking a replacement for Mr. Nicholson-possibly Tom Slade, state party head from Florida. With the support of the governors, such a candidate would be a shoo-in when the RNC elects its chairman in January. After a closed-door meeting, however, smiling governors stood behind a restrained Mr. Nicholson. Those smiles were polite but not parental. The best Mr. Nicholson received in that meeting was the assurance that the governors would for the most part stay out of the chairmanship race. That means Mr. Slade can still mount a serious challenge next year. With neither candidate having the unified support of the governors, Mr. Nicholson is vulnerable, and he knows it. For social conservatives, this is nothing but good news. "Both candidates are going to need the conservatives," says Texas RNC member Tim Lambert, a pro-life conservative who has tussled with Mr. Nicholson in the past. "We may not be the majority in the party, but we're the swing vote now." Here is another area where the RNC chairman stands to lose autonomy. Whichever man prevails, he will only do so by convincing conservatives that their issues will not be sidelined. Mr. Slade, a paint store owner from Jacksonville, Fla., is a prickly character who has often been at odds with the GOP's religious conservative wing. His leadership style has been termed "controlling." One state representative, Jim King of Jacksonville, said in October, "The party is today what we are largely because of his hand on the helm, even though his other hand was sometimes at our throats." And Mr. Slade himself told the Florida Times-Union, "Discipline is a hard asset to maintain in an ocean of egos. From time to time you have to be a little bit rough." Even some Democrat opponents admit his effectiveness. State senator Betty Holzendorf says, "He puts the fear of God into people." But even if he successfully deposes Mr. Nicholson, he won't enjoy that kind of power over RNC matters, says party activist Lambert. "We're definitely seeing the democratization of the Republican party. The power is no longer going to be so centralized and concentrated in one person." As the governors' motorcade moved out of the French Quarter, the tourists, transvestites, and street performers moved back in. Just another shooting, just another celebrity or two. Nothing new for Bourbon Street. More lasting, perhaps, will be the effect of New Orleans on the Republican party. "There wasn't a bloodbath, there were no fireworks," as Mr. Lambert said, "but a lot more voices could be heard within the party-including ours."

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