SAN DIEGO - Miriam Hellreich, the Republican committeewoman from Hawaii, believes she has a powerful secret weapon that her party could deploy to defeat President Clinton in the November election: property rights.
Hellreich is part of a growing campaign to encourage Robert Dole and Jack F. Kemp to jump on the property-rights bandwagon. ``More and more Republicans regard using the private property- rights struggle as a political weapon,'' she said.
Hellreich is a walking, talking conservative combatant in the property-rights wars. In 1992, she and a group of other property owners near Fort Pain, Ala., where she has property, thwarted federal plans to condemn their lands. The government action was part of an effort, supported by the environmental community, to create a national park in Little River Canyon. Hellreich's land, which included a key waterfall for the proposed park, had been in her family for more than 200 years.
To block the park proposal, she helped mobilize a grass-roots crusade against its champion, Rep. Tom Bevill, D-Ala. ``Any time Tom Bevill came to the district, we had landowners out there picketing with signs that said `Save Our Land,' '' she said.
As a result of their relentless pressure, the Interior Department's National Park Service scaled back its park proposal, and instead created a national preserve that included no private lands.
Dr. Philip Hellreich, Miriam's husband and a Hawaii delegate, was one of several Republican property-rights advocates who successfully lobbied for an aggressive property-rights plank in the GOP platform. That statement of principle describes property rights as ``the cornerstone of environmental progress.''
In fact, there are some clear differences between the Clinton and Dole positions on property rights, according to an Aug. 9 survey released by Resources for the Future, a Washington think tank. Both candidates claim to endorse private-property rights. But Dole, who sponsored property-rights legislation in the Senate, would require the federal government to compensate landowners when the government restricts the use of their property to protect the environment.
Clinton opposes that legislation, asserting that the Republican proposals ``would cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars and weaken safeguards for public health, safety and the environment.''
Miriam Hellreich said that the GOP's property-rights credentials were greatly enhanced when Dole selected Kemp as his running mate.
In a telephone interview, W. Henson Moore, president of the American Forest and Paper Association, argued that property rights could be a ``defining issue politically'' for the Republicans. ``This is one of the very clear differences of opinion between the two political philosophies,'' said Moore, who was deputy chief of staff in the Bush White House.
But Senate Republicans didn't push Dole's property-rights legislation in Congress this year, Moore said, because ``they're scared that this issue will be characterized as degrading the environment.''
Property-rights supporters at the Republican convention say that their grass-roots movement is gaining momentum. ``Over the last four years, we've seen the regulatory agencies get cranked up,'' said California delegate Bob L. Vice, who's president of the California Farm Bureau Federation. ``It's causing a lot of economic hardship to more people than ever before. It's not just in the rural areas anymore.''
Philip Hellreich said that he views property rights as dovetailing with a wide range of other contentious federal issues that appeal to Republican voters, such as states' rights and endangered-species reform.
The Dole-Kemp ticket can win support by painting the Clinton Administration as closely allied with the radical environmental groups, contended California alternate delegate Donald Amador, a commissioner with the California Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division. ``Property rights could hurt the Democratic bid for reelection,'' he said. ``Clinton is in bed with the Sierra Club, which opposes any logging in the national forests.'' The Democrats' position, Amador contended, is extremist by anyone's measurement.