STEVE MERRILL IS THE WILDLY POPULAR Republican governor of New Hampshire who will soon be out of a job. He s retiring voluntarily -- he won reelection two years ago with 70 percent of the vote -- but he'd like to stay involved in GOP politics. That explains why in the course of a short conversation with a reporter he zings a couple of obscure GOP operatives in states far away from his. Merrill is running for chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Merrill had not officially announced when I chatted with him in the Chicago airport on November 23, but there was little doubt as to his intentions. He skipped many of the public events here at the annual meeting of Republican governors, opting to meet privately with reporters and others to talk about succeeding Haley Barbour, the outgoing chairman of the RNC. So far, Merrill is the best-known candidate in the contest to replace Barbour. But being the bestknown doesn't guarantee success.

Indeed, the chairman's race is still in its early stages, and election day isn't until January 17. But that didn't prevent Merrill and some of the other candidates -- Chuck Yob of Michigan, Robert Bennett of Ohio, David Norcross of New Jersey -- from traveling here to do a little schmoozing with the assembled governors and political hacks. And even if you include the candidates who didn't bother coming to Grand Rapids -- John Herrington of California was on a vacation in France -- there's an unmistakable quality about the assembled candidates: underwhelming.

The slate four years ago included Barbour, who had run the political shop in the Reagan White House, Missouri governor John Ashcroft, and Spencer Abraham, a former chairman of the Michigan GOP who had headed the House Republican campaign committee. An impressive field, as confirmed by the fact that each of the losers -- Ashcroft and Abraham -- ended up with a bigger prize two years later: election to the U.S. Senate. With the possible exception of Merrill, none of the current crop of candidates for chairman stands much chance of being elected to the Senate anytime soon.

Campaigning for the job of RNC chairman is not a high-profile endeavor. You won't see lawn signs, bumper stickers, or television ads touting the candidates. That's because only 165 people vote: three national committee members from each state, the District of Columbia, and four U.S. territories. Thus candidates can win endorsements from all the elected officials they want, but these count for very little. Indeed, some committee members take offense at having a senator or governor try to foist a chairman on them. Campaigning tends to be a retail affair. "They're all running for class president," quips Ron Kaufman, a veteran GOP operative from Massachusetts and one of the select 165. Candidates try to make a face-to-face visit with every committee member, during which they assure the member how much attention will be paid to his state party. And they make an array of promises -- particularly that money will go to the state party organization -- that as chairman they almost surely would have to break.

Merrill, not surprisingly, is highlighting his experience in retail politics. "I'm a grassroots governor from the most grassroots state in the nation," he told me. New Hampshire's legislature is the largest in the nation with 424 members, and Merrill brags that during his four years as governor he never had a veto overridden (of course, Republicans controlled the legislature).

Merrill is similar in appearance and demeanor to Lamar Alexander, but more conservative. Both have a thinning hairline, a cheery, wide-eyed enthusiasm for the political process, and glad-handing skills (Merrill called me by name, offered me a ride from the airport, and complimented this magazine's coverage of the presidential campaign). Merrill can also boast of his accomplishments during his four years in the state-house. He's the only governor to twice get an "A" from the libertarian Cato Institute for his success at cutting spending and taxes.

While Merrill's conservative fiscal record is overshadowed in some circles by his failure to deliver his state for Bob Dole in the primary and by the fact that a Democrat was elected to succeed him, he faces a bigger hurdle: In the insulated world of the RNC, Merrill is considered an "outsider" because he's not one of the 165 committee members. That's trouble, as the selection of an "insider" is the natural inclination of committee members in years when a Republican doesn't control the White House.

What's bad news for Merrill should be good news for someone like Michigan's Chuck Yob, an insider who predicts "a national committee member is definitely going to win this race." But Yob is given little chance of becoming the next chairman. It was considered bad form when he jumped into the race after his state chairman, the popular Betsy DeVos, had indicated she was considering running (she has since withdrawn for family reasons).

But Yob is pressing ahead. He held a reception here and was working the lobby all weekend, distributing his three-dimensional orange business cards. No target was too small. Minutes after I arrived, he asked whether I'd like to interview him. Outfitted in a monogrammed shirt with elephant cuff links and an elephant-motif tie, he sold himself as a good old-fashioned Republican. "I have no agenda other than electing Republicans," he said, mentioning later that he will travel anywhere in the state to give a speech and once debated James Carville at the University of Michigan.

Norcross and Bennett are more likely as chairman than Yob, though neither is considered a heavyweight. Norcross was the RNC's general counsel under both Barbour and Reagan-era chairman Frank Fahrenkopf, and chairman of the New Jersey Republican party from 1977 to 1981. He's more reserved than Yob and Merrill and distinguishes himself from a field of conservatives by a slightly more moderate tone. He's not a pro-lifer and is critical of what he calls the party's "harsh message." "We sometimes need to be a loving mother as well as a stern father," he says. It's little surprise then that New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman, a leading moderate voice in the GOP, told me she'd "be very comfortable with David Norcross as chairman."

Of all the candidates, Bennett is the only one who can point to real achievements in terms of helping Republicans get elected. When he became chairman of the Ohio GOP in February 1988, no Republican held any of the eight offices elected statewide, and Democrats had a 60-39 majority in the state House. Today, seven of the eight statewide offices are held by Republicans, and it's the GOP that has the 60-39 majority in the state House. Bennett also speaks the language committee members want to hear: "I want to treat the RNC as a giant service bureau to the state parties." But there's some question whether he's smooth enough to handle the television appearances that have become a key part of the chairman's job.

There are a few others running or close to running -- Tom Pauken of Texas, Jim Nicholson of Colorado, Jeanie Austin of Florida -- but none of them looks like an immediate front-runner. Thus, unless a candidate with more stature, like former Minnesota congressman Vin Weber, jumps into the race, the ideal setup might be for Republicans to mimic the Democratic National Committee's organizational structure of the past year: A high-profile figure, Sen. Chris Dodd, was responsible for much of the fund-raising and media time, while South Carolina state chairman Don Fowler was the nuts-and-bolts political operative. There's some precedent for this (Sen. Paul Laxalt was "general chairman" in the early '80s), but after selecting such a successful chairman in Barbour -- frequently described as the most capable the party has ever had -- the committee members are confident they can choose right again. We'll see.

by Matthew Rees Grand Rapids, Michigan

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