William J. Bennett, President Bush's choice to be the next Republican national chairman, Monday declared his unequivocal opposition to the principle underlying most affirmative-action programs, an issue that is expected to be a focal point for partisan debate in the 1992 struggle for the White House.

``I believe that the idea of affirmative action - giving people credit for a job in the absence of a showing of prior discrimination simply on the basis of their race - is wrong,' Bennett told reporters at a press luncheon. This was his first public appearance since Republican sources disclosed that Bush had chosen him to replace the ailing Lee Atwater as chairman of the Republican National Committee.``I think it's wrong to say to somebody in the absence of a showing of prior discrimination: 'You are black you get X points, you are white you don't (get any),' ' Bennett said.

Asked how big an issue affirmative action will be in the 1992 campaign debate, the 47-year-old Bennett, who recently announced his resignation as director of the White House Office of Drug Control Policy, said: ``It all depends how much Democrats want to do about it.'

But Republicans believe that the potential effectiveness of the issue was demonstrated during the recent midterm election campaign when Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina used an ad accusing Harvey Gantt, his black Democratic opponent, of favoring racial quotas. The ad showed the hands of a white worker tearing up a job rejection letter.

Moreover some Democrats have accused Bush of setting the stage for Republicans to attack on this issue by contending that the 1990 civil rights bill that he vetoed would impose quotas in hiring and promotion.

Most affirmative action programs are designed to compensate for deep-rooted and long-standing patterns of discrimination without requiring specific evidence in each case. But Bennett called this approach ``a violation of our most basic values.'

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