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Republican Pollster Sees Weld as Possible Candidate

WILL it be Weld vs. Clinton in '96?

That's the question raised by Massachusetts Gov. William Weld's recent move into the national limelight. First, he announced a plan to lower his state's taxes to compensate for the tax-hikes contained in President Clinton's budget. Then he was chosen by House minority leader Bob Michel (R) of Illinois to deliver Saturday's GOP response to Mr. Clinton's national radio address.

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"Weld is certainly one of a handful of Republican governors who has national credibility for '96," says Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster in Washington. The others: John Engler of Michigan, Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, Carroll Campbell of South Carolina, and George Voinovich of Ohio.

On the plus side, Weld is a fiscally conservative Republican who is a proved vote-getter with independent and liberal voters in Massachusetts. He also has a strong base of support in New England. Like Michael Dukakis, his predecessor, Weld could fuel a presidential bid by winning the primary in neighboring New Hampshire.

And, despite (or perhaps because of) his upper-crust roots, Weld has an appealing public image. "His social habits and patrician background tend to be quiche and Perrier, but he also comes across as a regular guy," says Tobe Berkovitz, a Democratic political consultant in Boston. "He wears blue jeans to Grateful Dead concerts."

But Weld also has some strong negatives going into a Republican primary. Chief among them are his liberal views on abortion and gay rights. Republican primary voters tend to be more conservative than voters in the general election.

Before Weld can become a Republican presidential candidate, he must jump over some hurdles in Massachusetts. First, he must win his bid for reelection next year. Then, the Bay State economy must be in good shape by 1995. A weak economy has severely hurt the aspirations of another Republican governor, Pete Wilson of California.

Mr. Newhouse suggests that Weld's tax-cutting initiative "will look good" if the "economy comes back." If not, he says, it'll appear as empty posturing. "It's not worth a positive, two-to-three day hit in the national media if it doesn't work in Massachusetts."

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