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GOP conference: doubts linger behind show of unity

With an eye on reelection, nearly 100 of the nation's top-ranked Republican elected officials have endorsed President Reagan's economic, Caribbean, and federal-state initiatives.

Leading members of the party -- US senators, congressmen, White House Cabinet officers, and GOP state officials -- met last weekend at the Tide Water conference, an informal, yearly GOP political retreat. They came carefully prepared to avoid divisiveness or oversharp debate.

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Despite a consensus that Mr. Reagan must alter key parts of his economic program and despite a deep worry that the prospect of federal deficits would gravely harm the party in the future, the Republicans stressed the positive statistics and themes of Reaganomics and ''new federalism.''

The long arm of Reagan's incumbency could be felt from Washington across the Chesapeake Bay in Easton.

As the White House preferred, the conferees set aside a motion to endorse a constitutional amendment limiting court powers in social issues like abortion and busing. They endorsed the President's new federalism; but they cautioned that state governments not be financially penalized in any exchange of programs, and urged action on the program during the 1982 legislative session. And the conferees gently suggested that Mexico's offer to serve as an intermediary in the Central American disputes be ''seriously considered.''

Nonetheless, praise here for the President and his White House team was at best tight-lipped. There was little cheerleading. Dissent was guarded.

By avoiding either overt praise or blame, the elected Republican officials seemed to be preparing to distance their reelection campaigns from the administration's record if the economy fails to revive quickly and public worries about war worsen. This is easier to do in high visibility races for US senator and governor than for the US Congress. But clearly, even GOP congressmen are working hard now at constituent services and returning for the back-home talk circuit rather than risk their incumbency on the President's or their party's fortunes.

So far, Reagan is doing better among registered voters on a state by state basis than nationwide polls suggest, Republican strategists say. The results of 11 GOP pollsters' surveys in the 47 states where the party has major office incumbents show Reagan's approval in the mid 50s to 60 percent range.

The public is preoccupied with pocketbook issues - inflation, interest rates, jobs. But among ''Reagan Republicans'' and three-fourths of split-ticket voters, these pocketbook concerns have not turned into anti-Reagan sentiment, Republican strategists say.

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Reagan, however, has clearly lost the Democratic base he enjoyed in Novermber 1980, they concede.

The Republcian pros, like the rest of Washington, are on the lookout for signs of a precipitous drop in Reagan's public approval rating, such as happened to Jimmy Carter in the spring of 1979. But so far it has not occurred.

''What erosion there is is very slight,'' says Robert Teeter, GOP pollster and president of Market Opinion Research in Detroit.

''What's interesting to me is that Reagan hasn't slid much,'' Mr. Teeter says , considering the nation's stubborn recession. ''It could happen soon. But there's no data yet to show it - not even in Michigan (where the auto industry is in a deep slump). We finish four or five statewide polls a week. I've seen only one state where he's under 50 percent. And that's at 48 or 49 percent.''

Teeter says he is telling his GOP clients that it is still too early to know what the President's impact will be on the fall races. But by summer it should be clear.

''The economic turnaround has to start by June or July,'' Teeter contends. ''It takes two or three months for a turnaround to be perceived by the public.''

The 1982 campaign season is still in an early, low-level stage of intensity - a condition that could last longer this year than usual because of uncertainty about Reagan and his programs, Teeter says.

The Democrats also were a topic of conversation.

Reagan's troubles, the economy's decline, so far are not benefiting Democratic incumbents, Republican strategists say.

Also, Republicans will need help from the Democrats to resolve the budgetary impasse now threatened between the White House and Congress.

''We're not going to do it (produce a smaller deficit) without help from the other side of the aisle,'' observers one Tide Water Republican during a budget resolution debate.

As it was, the Republicans at Tide Water were forced to produce something of a patchwork in order to pass an economic resolution - touching on ''the goal of a balanced budget by 1985 . . . taking all steps necessary, including a constitutional amendment, to restrain spending growth and stimulate economic growth through a consistent, incentive-oriented tax policy, with the goal of increased employment and a balanced budget.''

''It's a turkey, Mr. Chairman,'' said Rep. William Frenzel (R) of Minnesota after the economic resolution passed.

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