Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Republicans Jockey for '96 Race

MANCHESTER, New Hampshire -- The divisive issue of abortion overshadowed attempts by the three leading Republican presidential candidates to cast themselves as disciples of Ronald Reagan in a weekend of events unofficially seen as marking the start of the campaign.

First on Sunday's national news shows, then on a New Hampshire television forum and finally at a state Republican dinner, the party's prospects sought to position themselves as best suited to take on President Clinton and reduce the size and power of the federal government.

The New Hampshire primary, the first of each presidential season and one of the most influental, is a year from Monday. But the candidates were acting as it if were any day now, scooting from table to table to greet the 1,400 people who paid $100 each to hear from nine hopefuls, several of them considerable long shots.

The dinner and weekend campaigning served as the ceremonial start of the 1996 race, and weekend polls put the stakes in perspective.

They showed Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas was far and away the early favorite of New Hampshire Republicans, the very voters who dashed his White House hopes in 1988.

Dole said it was past time to grant Reagan's wish and give the president the line-item veto, and said his mandate as Senate leader and then as president would be "reining in government.''

Front-runner status does not always mean much in quirky New Hampshire, especially a year out.

Still, Dole's rivals were clearly in a mood to counter his aggressive early organizing.

Texas Senator Phil Gramm sought to position himself as the candidate most in touch with New Hampshire's anti-tax, small government traditions, noting that he helped write Reagan's 1981 tax cuts and was a longtime backer of a balanced budget amendment.

Along with Gramm and Dole, the most organized of the Republican prospects is former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander, who suggested that it was time for the party to turn again, ? la Reagan in 1980, to a former state governor suspicious of Washington

But while Dole, Gramm and Alexander sought to focus on their perceived strengths, others in the field squared off in a debate those three would prefer to avoid because of its divisive history.

"I believe that if the abortion issue stays in the [Republican platform] we will be giving President Clinton his best and perhaps his only chance to be re-elected,'' said Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

Specter drew scorn from three longshot conservatives in the field: commentator Patrick Buchanan, California Representative Robert Dornan and Alan Keyes, a mid-level Reagan administration State Department official who has lost two Maryland Senate races.

Neither Gramm, Dole or Alexander mentioned abortion in their dinner remarks.

Abortion has for over two decades been a decisive issue in American politics and society. Anti-abortion and abortion-rights activists routinely mobilize to get funding for the candidates that back their positions.

"You cannot call right to life an irrelevancy,'' said Patrick Buchanan, the conservative commentator who challenged President Bush in 1992. "A great party has to take a stand.''