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  •   Bush Taking First Step Toward Run for President

    Gov. George W. Bush holds a news conference with Texas reporters Tuesday. (AP)
    By Dan Balz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, March 3, 1999; Page A1

    Texas Gov. George W. Bush, whose fledgling candidacy for president has sparked an extraordinary surge of support from around the country, took the first formal step toward running in 2000 by announcing yesterday he will form an exploratory committee that will allow him to start raising money and building a political organization.

    The second-term governor and son of former president George Bush told Texas reporters in Austin that he has not made a final decision about a presidential campaign. But he demonstrated his growing interest in running by saying that "I do have a compelling reason to consider running for president. For my family and for every family in America, I want the 21st century to be prosperous."

    Bush became the eighth Republican to either form an exploratory committee or announce a candidacy for president, but none has attracted the kind of interest and attention that has surrounded the Texas governor's prospective campaign -- despite the fact that he is untested as a national candidate.

    "I think it's Bush's strength in Texas and the fact that he did what no other governor has done for 20 years, which is to win reelection in a state whose politics are as complex as California and New York," said Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University. "It has generated the expectation that Bush is the kind of Republican who can lead the party to victory in 2000."

    But Black said Bush faces a difficult fight for the nomination, noting that as the front-runner he will be the primary target of attacks by other aspirants, and small mistakes could take a heavy toll.

    Bush, 52, has led the GOP field in early public opinion polls assessing support among Republicans for the 2000 nomination, and both he and Elizabeth Hanford Dole, who is weighing a run, lead Vice President Gore in hypothetical match-ups of a 2000 general election contest.

    Bush won reelection as governor in a landslide last fall with 69 percent of the vote, capturing almost half the Hispanic vote and one-quarter of the African American vote.

    Beyond those numbers, Bush's record on education and his brand of "compassionate conservatism" -- a phrase used to describe his political philosophy of inclusiveness -- have helped generate institutional and grass-roots support for his candidacy among Republicans who are desperate to win back the White House.

    "People smell a winner and they're buying big time," one GOP strategist said. "But there's a lot of time. The marketplace of political opinion is best reflected by the number of people who got in the race fully expecting Bush to run. Each of them is saying they've got a hunch that at some juncture they'll have a shot."

    Bush said he will formally launch the exploratory committee at a news conference in Austin on Sunday. But he told home-state reporters he will wait until summer before making a final decision about running.

    The final decision won't come until the Texas Legislature has concluded its session and after the governor and his wife, Laura, have had time to travel around the country and personally measure support for his candidacy. "He doesn't have a specific timetable," said Karen Hughes, the governor's press secretary.

    Bush has said family considerations -- he and his wife have twin teenage daughters -- will weigh heavily on his decision-making, but the pressure on him to become a candidate has been growing stronger and may be impossible to resist. Hughes said Bush was asked what might keep him out of the race at this point. "A giant thud or a big yawn," she quoted him as saying.

    In the past week alone, 12 Republican governors announced their support for Bush, and three others may publicly endorse him in the near future. That represents half of all GOP governors, with several more expected to support Bush's candidacy later.

    At the same time, a steady stream of state legislators from around the country have encouraged Bush to run and, if he does, pledged their support. On Monday, legislators from North Carolina and South Carolina were in Austin to meet with Bush. Yesterday, 29 Republican legislators from Maryland released a letter urging Bush to run and promising their support. Earlier, groups of legislators from California, Iowa, Alabama and Massachusetts pledged their support.

    "I've been encouraged by the outpouring of support from fellow elected officials and party leaders all across our country -- many of whom, as you know, have made the trip to Austin, Texas," Bush told Texas reporters.

    Bush also has been building an impressive fund-raising network, which will go to work immediately to raise the resources for what would be a costly campaign. Bush has not decided whether he will forgo federal matching funds next year; if he does, it would allow him to exceed the state-by-state and national spending limits. That would give him greater capacity to compete against magazine publisher Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes, who will finance his own expected campaign.

    Given all this activity, it was essential for Bush to set up the exploratory committee to comply with federal election laws, Hughes said.

    Some Republicans who have already endorsed Bush said they would like to see the party rally around him to avoid a divisive nomination fight. But others said yesterday that would not be good for Bush or the party. "Without naming names, I'm not interested in coronations," said James Ortenzio, who was Robert J. Dole's New York finance chairman in 1996. "I'm more interested in a form of Darwinism in which the best emerges after some test."

    Staff writer Ceci Connolly and staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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