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QUESTIONS ABOUT GOP CANDIDATES AS THE '96 CAMPAIGN HEATS UP

They've got some explaining to do.

For weeks Republican presidential candidates have been dropping into New Hampshire and appearing on Larry King's television show, speaking of their visions of America and of the failures of Bill Clinton. The talk is easy and so is the press coverage.

But the New Hampshire primary is less than a year away, and soon the Republicans who want President Clinton's job are going to come under scrutiny. They'll face questions about their records, their views, their consistency. It will make for some awkward moments.

Few of them will escape the inquiry. They are politicians, after all, and so have records and pasts. Here is a viewers' guide of what to expect:

Lamar Alexander. The former governor of Tennessee and onetime Secretary of Education likes to talk as an outsider and dress like a woodsman from Abitibi, Quebec. In truth, newspaper archives abound with pictures of him looking purposeful, even effective, in Washington meetings, often in an expensive blue suit. He is far more the insider and far more fluent with the capital than was Bill Clinton in 1991, and in an ordinary political year he might actually try to put those attributes to work to his advantage.

As a presidential candidate, Alexander will not be able to white-out his years in the Bush Cabinet. He'll have to answer how he made hundreds of thousands of dollars in sweetheart deals after he left the governor's office. He'll have to explain his increasingly conservative drift on issues.

Patrick Buchanan. The former commentator who punctured George Bush's balloon in New Hampshire three years ago has to answer for helping to defeat the Republican president and delivering the White House to Bill Clinton.

Buchanan may be right when he argues, as he did last week in Manchester, that many of his ideas were described as extreme then but now are regarded as conventional in today's Republican Party. Though he wasn't the nominee at the Houston convention in 1992, he and his allies stole the show -- and controlled the rhetoric.

The Republicans will gather in San Diego in August 1996 with the conviction that they can control the White House and both houses of Congress for the first time in more than four decades. For that reason, victory, not ideological purity, will be on their minds.

Bob Dole. The Senate Majority Leader, no unfamiliar figure in these lists, has been a member of Congress since John Kennedy was elected president and so has no shortage of votes in his record. But in this season, when affirmative action is under siege, he'll face questions about his opposition to federal programs to boost the hiring and promotion of minorities and women. He fought to save those very programs only a decade ago -- and was a Senate sponsor of the Glass Ceiling Commission, which this month found that women had made scant progress in their struggle for advancement in American business. His hardened position on gun rights also hasn't been fully explained.

Phil Gramm. There breathes no more devout an opponent of big government than the Texas senator who was born in a government hospital, educated with government loans in government universities, taught in a government university, served in government for 16 years and is married to a woman who headed a government regulatory agency. In addition, the man who denounced Sen. Lloyd M. Bentsen for running for vice president and Senate at the same time in 1988 wants to run for president and the Senate at the same time in 1996.

Arlen Specter. The Pennsylvania senator is running as the Uncola of the GOP, courting women's groups by expressing his skepticism of the religious right and his support for abortion rights. But the former prosecutor was also the lead prosecutor of Anita Hill in the Clarence Thomas hearings, and many of the liberal-leaning GOP women whose support he seeks remember his relentless questioning in 1991.

Pete Wilson. The California governor is positioning himself as a thoroughly modern conservative, which these days requires a clean record on taxes. That's going to be difficult for Wilson, who in 1991 became the author of the largest state tax increase in American history.

Inevitably Wilson will answer that one of his Republican predecessors in Sacramento, Ronald Reagan, also raised taxes. Reagan, however, didn't ostracize Republican lawmakers who opposed his tax ideas, as Wilson did -- or pledge that he wouldn't run for president. For advice on squeezing out of a commitment like that, Wilson has only one person to consult: Bill Clinton.

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