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Mr. Smith leaves the GOP

National | Conservative senator's departure attracts attention, but the question remains: will it attract voters?

Issue: "Worse NOW than ever," July 24, 1999

It's long past quitting time, but the phones won't quit ringing. "Sen. Bob Smith's office. How may I help you?" the two receptionists repeat almost non-stop. They mumble a few "um-hmm's" and "OK's" before punching the next line lit up on their console.

Reinforcements wander in. "Can you listen to the woman on two?" pleads one overworked receptionist. "She's not done talking yet." With each call, the sheaf of papers on the corner of each desk grows a little taller. The stacks are already several inches tall, and they're relatively fresh; earlier stacks have already been spirited away to other offices for analysis.

This is what it feels like to be at the center of the top political story of the day. Sen. Smith, the man at dead center, is a few feet away in his private office, taking calls from a steady stream of fellow senators and media hot-shots. Four hours ago he took the floor of the Senate to bid a not-very-fond farewell to the Republican Party-the first sitting senator to do so in some 50 years. From now on, newspapers will refer to him as Sen. Bob Smith (I-N.H.). The "I" (for independent) looks funny, but Mr. Smith thinks the voters will get used to it. He hopes they'll even learn to like it, since he's running for president.

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For now, the novelty of it has won him something he could never get as a Republican: media attention. He's done Larry King Live. NBC's Today Show. Fox News Channel. CNN. Radio stations are pleading for soundbites, and newspapers have to settle for whatever crumbs of his time they can gather.

Not bad for a guy who's registering about 1 percent in the polls.

To the cynics, those poll numbers explain everything. Sen. Smith-like his 10 GOP colleagues-was being swamped by the George W. Bush tidal wave. He couldn't raise money. Journalists ignored him. The public barely recognized him. Bolting the party was just a way to get attention, the political equivalent of a two-year-old's temper tantrum.

At least, that was the reaction of Jim Nicholson, chairman of the Republican National Committee. In a sharply worded letter, he called the senator's move a "serious mistake for you personally, with only a marginal political impact-and a counterproductive one at that.... I hope you don't confuse the success of our shared message with your failure as its messenger."

"America has never liked a sore loser," added an angry Steve Duprey, chairman of the New Hampshire GOP. "This is a selfish move and is doomed to failure. It signals the end of his political career in New Hampshire."

Mr. Smith was not particularly surprised by the attacks of his former colleagues. "This is the establishment. They're interested in poll numbers. They're interested in how much money you have. They're interested in your name recognition," he said. "They've walked away from the principles."

In an interview with WORLD just hours after his resignation speech, Mr. Smith repeatedly blasted the Republican Party hierarchy-a faceless blob Mr. Smith and other conservative critics call "Establishment," pointedly never naming names. "When candidates are not leading on the issues, it's hard for the party to keep sharp and debate the issues," he said, in reference to Gov. Bush's soft-pedaling of the abortion issue. "A great party should be willing to crusade on issues. That's how you change attitudes. It's how you lead. It's how you win."

The conservative second-runners still in the GOP treated the Smith announcement with respect: "It's a wake-up call that the Republican establishment and the inside-

the-Beltway, big-government politicians are distancing themselves from the core conservative principles that gave us our majority in Congress and would give us a majority to win the White House again," said Steve Forbes, while campaigning in Iowa.

In an open letter to Mr. Nicholson, Gary Bauer called the senator "a man of deep conviction and unwavering principle.... I cannot agree that he was motivated by narrow or selfish considerations. Rather, I believe that like millions of other Republicans, he is concerned by the retreat of our party's leadership on matters of fundamental principle."

Such a deep-seated resentment of the Republican establishment may signal more headaches ahead for the GOP. Mr. Bauer and Mr. Buchanan have frequently been cited as two candidates likely to leave the party if they perceive that their conservative principles are being abandoned. Though Mr. Smith's departure, in itself, may have a negligible impact, any such future defections could doom the eventual Republican nominee.

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