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To achieve success in Albany, the Republican Party will have to define its soul. Republicans in New York ought to recognize reality -- amply evident in this year's state election returns -- and turn to the right.

It's time for a strategy change, and it should be toward a new focus on conservative approaches to such matters as taxation, abortion and crime.

Only with a prescription that offers voters a clearly different choice can a party prove competitive in a state where it holds a minority in enrollment. The party that has to play catch-up must catch the voters' attention by staking claims to positions that come to be popularly associated with it and will attract the like-minded from the electorate.

Analysts hovering Hippocratic-like around the state Republican Party are not likely to pronounce it terminally ill. The party survives. But it will take a good dose of shock therapy to jolt the organization back from its brush with the oblivion of minor-party status. It was delivered from that fate by a mere one percent vote margin over the Conservatives.

Power is the lifeblood of politics, and so the prognosis must be a critical one indeed for a party that for 16 years has failed to fill the state's top executive spot once held by the likes of luminaries such as Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas E. Dewey and Nelson A. Rockefeller.

The route back to serious contention depends on again securing strong leaders, but to do that, Republican movers and shakers will have to end their ideological feuding and reach agreement on where the party stands.

Squabbling over issues that remain unreconciled, so visibly evident in the disagreement between pro- and anti-abortion advocates at the last state party convention, leaves organizers scrambling to patch together a program and find a candidate of stature to head the ticket.

This year Republicans ended up declaring the battle lost before it began by settling for an independent-minded political amateur who, as a wealthy and well-connected economist, could at least be expected to deliver the big bucks needed to fuel a respectable race. The party paid the price for having lost sight of the forest nservative roots
for the financial trees at a cost that nearly bought it political bankruptcy. In the end, the money angle itself proved ephemeral and the party wound up the campaign $1 million in debt.

Unity around settled, more conservative dogma would play better at the polls -- witness this year's votes from party loyalists on the Republican line combined with the considerable Conservative Party tallies.

But it will prove difficult to achieve given the historical heritage.

Left-of-center Republicanism has held a long and illustrious place in the state. Nowadays it gets little sympathy among Republicans nationally. For many, the Empire State remains suspect, if unspokenly so, as the home of a branch of the family tree whose roots trace back to Nelson Rockefeller. Rockefeller led the left-leaning troops in a bid for the presidential nomination in 1968 at a convention where the then-governor of California made the same move from the right. The Reagan decade shows which side proved the eventual winner.

The old Republican Eastern establishment -- moderate to liberal in social outlook, Keynesian in approach to government management -- is very much alive in New York. It carries on comfortably in an environment which, although dominated by Democrats, remains familiar. Many among State Senate Republicans, who have the clout to make a difference, operate from fiscal bias as lavish as any liberal's.

Prominent Republicans who manage to win elections, such as former Rep. Jack Kemp, distance themselves from that tradition. Victory for him and others like U.S. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato has come by running campaigns largely on their own and building no strong ties to the state party morass. This year Kemp urged a vote for the Conservatives.

The party should bring itself fully in line with positions reflective of the Republican national mainstream.

A pulse beats still in New York's Grand Old Party, but recovery of its respectability will have to wait until it makes up its mind.

PAUL F. STATE lives in Buffalo.

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