A Bare-Knuckled Brawl

AT THE WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENTS Dinner last April, Gov. William Weld of Massachusetts happily and heedlessly told any number of the thousand or so journalists in attendance that he was going to be named ambassador to Mexico. When he ran into the secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, she asked him to be quiet, because, as she explained with mild exasperation, ""we haven't told Mexico yet.'' More important, perhaps, the Clinton administration had not told Sen. Jesse Helms, the powerful and prickly chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. When he heard the news, Helms sent an aide to tell reporters that the only way Weld, a fellow Republican, would get to Mexico was ""as a tourist.'' Helms's stated reason for opposing Weld is that the governor, a former prosecutor who supports the medical use of marijuana, is soft on drugs. ""Phoney baloney,'' says Weld.

The two antagonists may talk this week, when Weld comes to Washington to seek support from the Senate. He would like to call on Helms, though the chairman isn't saying if he will deign to see the governor. ""All I want is a hearing,'' Weld told NEWSWEEK. ""Anyone who says he doesn't want to give it to me is a Helms Republican.'' The betting is that Weld is a lost cause. That doesn't seem to faze Weld, who is married to the great-granddaughter of Teddy Roosevelt and has a Rooseveltian exuberance about life in the arena. Weld would clearly love a fight, the more public the better. ""This,'' he says, ""is about the future of the Republican Party.''

Actually, it's about the past. Weld versus Helms stirs up ancient GOP hatreds. Helms and Weld stand on opposite sides of a sociological and ideological divide: Wall Street versus Main Street, mink coat versus cloth coat, Eastern establishment versus the sun belt. A former radio host, Helms has been elected to five terms from North Carolina by appealing to Christian values and, when necessary, manipulating racial fears. Weld is a Brahmin and a libertarian (he is pro-choice and pro-gay rights) who makes no effort to disguise his silver-spoon upbringing. Asked if he had a hard time dealing with losing his 1996 Senate campaign, Weld answered dryly, ""It was not my first defeat. There was the Rhodes scholarship. The Marshall scholarship. The Harvard Law Review. My life is a tangled wreck of failures.'' He wanted Mexico because, after six years, he has become bored in Boston. In his first term, he had brilliantly dug the state out of a fiscal hole, but lately there has been a lot of time for squash.

The Clinton administration chose Weld for reasons high and low. Appointing a Republican was a noble show of bipartisanship. It also got Weld out of the way so Democrat Joe Kennedy could run for governor in 1998. But two weeks ago Weld sensed that Clinton was waffling. It began to look as if Albright, who has assiduously courted Helms, was trying to find a compromise country for Weld - say, India (the administration refuses to confirm the reports). No deal, said Weld, who speaks Spanish. He held a press conference to accuse Helms of ""ideological extortion.'' The tough talk shamed the Clintonites into sending up Weld's name, but no one thinks the president will use up chits with Helms to win an embassy for Weld. Clinton needs the balky chairman on more important matters, like NATO expansion.

GOP senators are not racing to Weld's defense; they suspect he is grandstanding. And for the far right, this is pay-back time. In 1988 Weld quit as assistant attorney general, accusing his boss, Ed Meese, of corruption. Conservatives were furious. ""Weld is a dilettante. He's not one of us,'' says Elliott Abrams, a former Reaganite. ""We went into the Republican Party to drive out people like Weld.'' But Weld says he is thinking about quitting as governor in order to wage his campaign against Helms full time. And if he quits the governorship and still fails to become ambassador? ""The private sector,'' he says with a shrug. ""Finance.''