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  •   Bush to Launch Exploratory Effort

    Bush and Engler, AP
    Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) with Michigan Gov. John Engler (R) at the National Governors' Association meeting in February. (AP)
    By Dan Balz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, March 7, 1999; Page A1

    AUSTIN, March 6 David Miner, a Republican state representative from North Carolina, arrived here last Monday carrying what has become the most coveted political invitation in the country: lunch at the governor's mansion with Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

    "I believe it was beef," a starry-eyed Miner said later of the menu, "but I was so excited by seeing the kind of candidate that we haven't had in a long time, I didn't pay much attention to what I was eating."

    Iowa state Rep. Chuck Larson (R) had coffee with Bush on Feb. 8. Politicians from Iowa, whose precinct caucuses kick off the presidential nominating process, normally wait for candidates to come to them. But Larson was one of a dozen Iowa legislators who chartered two planes that day to fly to Austin, and he didn't leave disappointed.

    "We have had an opportunity to meet [candidates] Steve Forbes and Dan Quayle and the others, and they're all very sharp and competent and capable," Larson said. "But after meeting George Bush, you know that if he runs, he will be the next president of the United States."

    The Texas capital is in the grip of a phenomenon that may be unique in the annals of presidential campaign start-ups. As a slew of other Republican candidates make pilgrimages to Iowa and New Hampshire and struggle for money, media attention and political support, the world is rushing to George Bush's door in what has become the information age equivalent of William McKinley's front-porch campaign of 1896.

    Almost every day now, the heavy metal gate on the backside of the governor's mansion here slides open around noon and a group of prospective recruits for Bush's presidential campaign enters for an audience with him.

    The supply appears endless: politicians hoping to find a winner, curious business executives, eager fund-raisers, operatives looking for a piece of the action and a procession of policy experts who represent many of the best and brightest in the Republican Party. Demand is so heavy that Bush's staff is booking visits for April.

    Bush allies say the visits by legislators and prospective fund-raisers reflect a genuine grass-roots movement by Republicans desperate to recapture the White House in 2000. Cynics say it is a carefully calculated effort by Bush's team to create an aura of inevitability around the campaign of someone who has served just four years and seven weeks in elective office and is untested in national politics.

    Whichever the case, Bush will launch his presidential exploratory campaign here Sunday afternoon, blessed with the kind of institutional support that is unprecedented for a first-time candidate and burdened by what press secretary Karen Hughes calls "stratospherically high expectations" that can only mean trouble in the months ahead.

    "They're engaged in the easy part of being a front-runner, which is rolling out the people," said Mike Murphy, a GOP media consultant not aligned with any campaign. "The most difficult thing is making sure you spell the names right of everyone endorsing you."

    Bush's advisers claim they are keeping their feet on the ground, although some people here have begun to doubt that, sensing that some of those around the governor have been caught up in the hype of the rush to clamber aboard the campaign.

    "It is one of the best non-campaigns going," said one Bush ally, who has been a frequent visitor to the governor's mansion. "The fact that the non-campaign has been so successful makes it frightening to start the real campaign."

    Perhaps, but the Bush camp wouldn't trade places with any of the governor's rivals for the GOP nomination. Bush decided months ago that he would not travel to places such as Iowa and New Hampshire while the Texas Legislature is in session this spring a questionable strategy given the organizational demands in those states. But the Bush campaign has been taking shape here day by day, and whatever qualms Bush has had about putting his family through a grueling presidential campaign appear to have been resolved.

    "The fires are burning as hot as the sun," said one person who has talked to Bush about the campaign. "There is no reluctance. . . . You can sense a change in attitude; it's saddle up and ride."

    Already half the GOP governors have endorsed Bush for president. "Republicans are so hungry to win, and Republican governors are so tired of timidity and fear that we want someone who can raise the money, advance the agenda and kick them [Democrats] into the river," said Oklahoma Gov. Frank A. Keating (R). "George Bush is our man."

    By Monday, GOP legislators from 14 states will have sent or personally delivered letters, generally from majorities of their colleagues, urging Bush to run, and in most cases pledging support. Delegations in 15 other states are working on similar letters.

    "I have a bumper sticker on my son's wall in college that says, 'South Carolina is Bush country,'" said David H. Wilkins, speaker of the South Carolina House, who helped round up support from 59 of the 66 Republican state representatives. "I'm ready to . . . go to work and make sure it is Bush country."

    In North Carolina, home state of rival Republican prospect Elizabeth Hanford Dole, 70 percent of GOP state legislators have pledged their support to Bush. In California, a majority of Republicans in the state Senate and General Assembly sent a letter encouraging Bush to run even as former governor Pete Wilson (R) was still deciding whether to become a candidate. Wilson has since announced that he will forgo the 2000 campaign.

    The support is both spontaneous and orchestrated. In some states, governors helping Bush have organized the legislative support. In South Carolina, the endorsements were organized with the help of veteran strategist Warren Tompkins, a longtime Bush ally. In North Carolina, former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed was involved in helping make the connection with Bush's team. The Iowa support was encouraged by two brothers who were involved in former president George Bush's campaigns, and who visited Bush here in December.

    Bush is trading off his family name, but he is anxious to give his campaign a fresh look, rather than being an extension of the organizations that sustained his father's four national campaigns from 1980 to 1992. "It's very clear he doesn't want to be Bush II," said one person who has been involved in early discussions about the campaign. "He wants it to be George W. Bush I. He's very insistent that this be his team."

    The exploratory committee Bush unveils on Sunday will be stocked with big names in the Republican establishment as well as members of the governor's generation.

    Behind them a core campaign team has taken shape. Until recently, Bush was in discussions with former Iowa representative Tom Tauke to be his campaign manager. Now it appears likely that his gubernatorial chief of staff Joe Allbaugh will move over to manage the campaign full time once the legislative session ends. Carl Rove, who from his Austin office has helped manage the flood of endorsements, will serve as Bush's top political strategist, a role he has long played. Hughes will shift to the campaign as communications director at an appropriate time.

    Newcomers are on the way. Last week, Jack Oliver, a former aide to Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.), joined the campaign as finance director. This week, Josh Bolten, who worked in the White House and the Office of U.S. Special Trade Representative in the Bush administration, will arrive to coordinate the policymaking apparatus. Maria Cino, who ran the National Republican Congressional Committee when the GOP captured the House in 1994, will come on as political director.

    Others expected soon include Mark Gerson, a GOP speechwriter who wrote Robert J. Dole's well-received Hollywood speech four years ago, and David C. Beckwith, press secretary to Quayle, the former vice president.

    Bush said he would stay in Texas this spring to concentrate on his legislative agenda, but the presidential campaign is absorbing large portions of many days as Bush bones up on domestic and international issues. So far, he has participated in half a dozen or so policy briefings in recent weeks four-hour sessions that have covered health policy, the underclass, Social Security, Medicare, defense policy.

    "They're very lengthy sessions," said Indianapolis Mayor Steve Goldsmith, who directs the domestic issues policy team. "The governor's ability to sit and listen often exceeds my ability to talk."

    Al Hubbard, an Indiana businessman, former Quayle aide and longtime friend of Bush's, has spearheaded the effort to recruit policy advisers. In addition to Goldsmith, the team leaders are former National Security Council staff member Condoleezza Rice, who runs the defense and foreign policy operation, and former Federal Reserve board member Larry Lindsey, who heads the economic policy team.

    Fund-raisers, who follow the polls, have been among the most frequent visitors. Bush hosted three lunches this week alone. Under the direction of Donald L. Evans, a businessman from Midland, Tex., and a longtime Bush friend who will be the campaign's finance chairman, the Texas governor has aggressively recruited fund-raising talent. Raising money will be the first priority, and Bush has ambitious goals. "The talk is 14 or more million dollars in a matter of a month or two," said one Republican who is helping the campaign.

    Other Bush advisers are trying to tamp down such talk, calling it unrealistic. But one person helping in the fund-raising said, "Ted Welch [who is directing Lamar Alexander's fund-raising] is clearly the most effective fund-raiser in the Republican Party. Everyone else on the list of two through 23 is for George Bush."

    There is an air of unreality to all of the buildup to the Bush campaign. The delegations arriving at the mansion come as believers, not as skeptical voters who await the candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire and elsewhere.

    But Bush has mastered the techniques of the front-porch campaign. "Hi guys, let's eat," he said Monday, as he bounded into the governor's mansion to greet waiting delegations from Connecticut and North and South Carolina.

    For two hours, according to several attendees, Bush talked about his vision of the country, his record in Texas, his philosophy of inclusion and "compassionate conservatism." He fielded questions on subjects ranging from abortion (he opposes it but said the party should be big enough to accommodate other views) to whether he would pick Elizabeth Hanford Dole as his vice president (he said it was presumptuous to think that far ahead).

    Sen. Patrick J. Ballantine, the GOP leader of the North Carolina Senate, said he was "dazzled" by the performance. "He pretty much spoke the whole time and didn't get a chance to eat," Ballantine said. "But he didn't pass on dessert."

    Researcher Ben White in Washington contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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