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After decades of silence, Rhode Island Republicans regain political voice

For the first time in more than half a century, Rhode Island may become ''a real two-party state.'' This is how Republican leaders there and those at the GOP's national headquarters read the results of special legislative elections held June 21 from Providence south to Block Island.

The vote tripled Republicans' state Senate strength from 7 to 21, and also brought them within five seats of controlling the 50-member lawmaking chamber.

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William Greener, communications director for the Republican National Committee (RNC), says the campaign was a team effort ''with all elements of the party pulling together.''

The newly elected Rhode Island Senate, to be sworn in July 12, will include nine women - eight Republicans and one Democrat. In the last Senate session there were four women among 43 Democrats and one among seven Republicans.

The election - which gives the GOP more state Senate seats than it has held in nearly 30 years - has left Rhode Island Democratic forces in considerable disarray.

While the vote's long-range impact on the state's political structure is uncertain, already there has been some significant movement in the state Democratic Party.

Rocco A. Quattrocchi of Providence, whose powerful reign as state Democratic chairman and Senate majority leader was the focal point of the GOP campaign attack, now has stepped down.

The special election, which involved only the state Senate, stemmed from a court-ordered Senate redistricting. A three-judge federal panel last year had ruled that boundaries crafted by Democrats violated the ''one-man, one-vote'' concept.

In the absence of an acceptable redistricting plan, the court postponed the Senate election. Senators serving in the 1981-82 General Assembly continued to fill their posts through the 1983 Rhode Island lawmaking session.

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Rhode Island Republican leaders, including campaign coordinator Thomas J. Cashill, say they hope that with 21 senators, the Republican point of view ''will no longer be ignored'' in the lawmaking process.

Republicans note that several new Democratic senators - as well as dissidents within the Democratic ranks who won reelection - had been critical of the way Mr. Quattrocchi ran the party.

Republican leaders' unwillingness to let senatorial seats go unchallenged probably contributed to the GOP gains. ''We had candidates lined up in all 50 districts, and 47 of them qualified for the ballot,'' explains Mr. Cashill.

Except for US Sen. John H. Chafee (R), a proven vote-getter, and second-term US Rep. Claudine Schneider (R) of the state's second congressional district, Rhode Island Republicans have faced increasingly tough political sledding for decades.

And nowhere had Democratic dominance been more evident than in the General Assembly, where last fall Democrats captured 85 of the 100 seats in the state House of Representatives.

Buoyed by what they view as a resurgence of Republicanism in a Democratic stronghold, Rhode Island GOP leaders now are shopping for a strong candidate for governor in 1984. Some observers suggest that John A. Holmes Jr. of Barrington, the GOP state chairman who is widely credited for quarterbacking the Senate victories, might be the choice.

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