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At a time when many Republicans are arguing about whether their conservative thrust on Capitol Hill has swept them too far from the political mainstream, GOP Gov. John Engler of Michigan harbors no such doubts. "Republicans should stay the course and hang in there for the fundamental change that they stand for," he says.

The significance of the governor's views, spelled out in a recent interview, extend far beyond the borders of his own state. The 47-year-old Engler is high on everyone's short list of prospective vice presidential candidates. And Bob Dole's choice of a running mate has taken on an extra dimension, becoming part of the ongoing struggle over the party's future.One reason for the enhanced significance of Dole's decision is his age. Soon to turn 73, he would be the oldest chief executive to begin a first term, thus making the credentials and beliefs of his understudy particularly salient.

More fundamentally, the GOP and the overall political process have been going through a period of upheaval. And Dole, more than a year after launching his third quest for the presidency, has yet to provide a coherent view of the role his party should play in the still emerging new political order.

With his decision to resign from the Senate, Dole set out to remedy that deficiency. But nothing he will do between now and the Republican convention in August will likely provide a better clue of where he wants to lead than his choice of a vice presidential candidate.

Given that the competition for the vice presidency is really a battle for Dole's mind, it demands finesse and indirection.

It can be an awkward minuet. When a dozen or so GOP governors were asked en masse which of them would refuse the job if offered, only one hand immediately shot up - that of New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. After a moment or two, a number of her colleagues, looking slightly abashed, raised their hands as well.

But for all the apparent restraint, evidence of the underlying conflict within the party over the decision is not hard to find. In the past, pragmatic politics weighed most heavily in vice presidential selection: Could the prospective candidate help carry a given state or region? But in the Republican Party of 1996, broader, more ideological concerns dominate.

Conservatives clamor for reassurance in the choice of a running mate. "I do not believe Bob Dole can take a chance on selecting someone that the pro-family community would find unacceptable," says Ralph Reed, head of the Christian Coalition.

But other Republicans, including some of Dole's advisers, think he should pick someone who will help broaden the GOP's appeal.

The top choice would be retired Gen. Colin Powell. Some analysts think Dole needs someone of Powell's stature to counter continuing Democratic efforts to link the outgoing Kansas senator to House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

But the very mention of Powell's name raises hackles among conservatives because of his deviation from many of their positions. Conservatives argue that to be true to his party, Dole needs to pick one of their kind. And then discussions turn toward Engler.

"Of all the guys that are being looked at, he has the strongest conservative credentials," contends Mike Murphy, a consultant who helped run Engler's two successful gubernatorial campaigns.

Engler established his conservative bona fides early in his career. As a state legislator still in his 20s, he set up a fund to help recruit and fund conservative candidates to help overturn Democratic majorities in the Michigan Legislature. That didn't sit well with Michigan's moderate Republican Gov. Bill Milliken. "There was an objection to this upstart legislator who was raising funds to help candidates outside the official auspices of party leaders," Engler recalls.

But Engler stuck to his guns and rose to the post of GOP Senate leader before upsetting a heavily favored Democratic incumbent to win the governorship in 1990.

Helped immeasurably by an auto industry boom, Engler won re-election in a walk in 1994.

Some Republicans think Dole would be better off to select another Midwestern Catholic governor, George Voinovich of Ohio, who is considered less abrasive in personality, more moderate in his views and broader in background.

In the end, Dole may find that picking a vice president, like much else in politics, is an exercise in damage control.

"First you say to yourself, `Who can help me win the presidency?' " said David Keene, a Dole adviser. "Then you realize, `Nobody can help me but myself.' Then you say, `If there isn't somebody who can win it for me, is there somebody who could lose it for me?' So it becomes a game of subtraction rather than addition."