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  • Key stories on the 2000 presidential race, including news on Bush

  •   Bush Starts Presidential Exploratory Panel

    Texas Gov. George W. Bush
    Texas Gov. George W. Bush with his wife, Laura, Michigan Gov. John Engler, Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) and Dr. Condi Rice Sunday. (AP)
    By Dan Balz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, March 8, 1999; Page A4

    AUSTIN, Tex., March 7 Texas Gov. George W. Bush launched his presidential exploratory committee here today with a show of political muscle designed to intimidate his rivals and a pledge to commit his party to the principle that "no one is left behind" in a prosperous America.

    Although Bush again stopped short of declaring himself a candidate for the Republican nomination, the event reflected a campaign already in full motion and growing by the day.

    The people Bush introduced today as leaders of his exploratory committee demonstrated his grip on the GOP establishment while signaling his desire to promote diversity and generational change. At the same time, few of those on the new team have close ties to the administration of Bush's father, former president George Bush, and several hold strongly conservative views, part of the Bush campaign's determination to blunt criticism that he is too moderate.

    The 10-member group included such GOP luminaries as George P. Shultz, who was President Ronald Reagan's secretary of state, and former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour, as well as such rising stars as Reps. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) and Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.), who are House leaders. The committee includes three women, two African Americans and one Hispanic.

    Despite Bush's growing cadre of supporters, he remains an unknown quantity as a national candidate and he offered few clues today to how he would deal with some of the treacherous issues that have divided Republicans. He refused to answer most specific questions about domestic or international issues, saying he would wait until he becomes a candidate to do so.

    Bush's announcement precedes a similar exploratory committee launch by Elizabeth Hanford Dole, wife of 1996 GOP nominee Robert J. Dole, Wednesday in Iowa. Former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander is to formally announce his candidacy Tuesday.

    Bush said only "a huge yawn" in reaction to the exploratory effort, which none of his advisers expects, might keep him from seeking the Republican nomination. He also made clear that he and his family have resolved whatever reservations they had about subjecting themselves to the scrutiny and rigor of a presidential campaign.

    "We have become comfortable that our love is strong enough to endure, that we are close enough, that our family will thrive no matter what life brings," Bush told a media throng whose size reflected national polls showing the second-term governor leading other contenders for the GOP nod.

    Bush said he will not travel to early primary or caucus states like Iowa and New Hampshire until the Texas Legislature adjourns at the end of May. "I know I'll be late, but if I go forward with a campaign, I will work hard to overcome my late start," he said.

    But he said he understood that his standing in the polls, where he also beats Vice President Gore, the likeliest Democratic nominee, requires him to run everywhere and not skip early contests in states where rivals might be better organized. "I'll play the hand I was dealt," he said.

    The exploratory committee will allow Bush's team to dive immediately into raising money for his likely candidacy with what could be one of the most aggressive fund-raising operations the party has seen. Heinz Prechter, one of Bush's growing stable of fund-raisers, told reporters today Bush could bank $10 million by the end of the month.

    At the same time, Bush's team will continue to collect endorsements of Republican elected officials that already include roughly half of the Republican governors, 80 members of Congress and scores of state legislators. Bush's exploratory team leaders said they hope to round up a majority of Republicans in Congress in the near future, and efforts to corral additional state legislators are moving quickly.

    The exploratory committee also will allow Bush to begin expanding his campaign staff beyond the inner circle of advisers who will continue to guide him. His advisers are working on plans for an aggressive schedule of appearances once the legislature adjourns.

    Bush said he will attempt to "set an optimistic and hopeful tone" in his campaign and take positions on issues based on "a set of core, conservative principles from which I will not waver." He also stressed, in words echoing President Clinton's approach to governing, that he will try to usher in a "responsibility era" that applies not only to individuals but to corporations.

    "I've described myself as a compassionate conservative," he said, "because I am convinced a conservative philosophy is a compassionate philosophy that frees individuals to achieve their highest potential."

    Bush said his "compelling reason" to run for president was to bring "prosperity with a purpose" to 21st century America. "We must make sure the purpose of prosperity is to help every single person have a shot at achieving the American dream."

    Bush said he will leave it to others to judge how he differs politically from his father but said if he chooses to run the country "will know it's George W. Bush who's going to be president."

    But he appeared to distinguish his foreign policy instincts from those of his father, who coined the phrase "New World Order" during the Persian Gulf War, by signaling a more nationalistic viewpoint. "The first question I'm going to ask on foreign policy is, is it good for America and American workers?" he said.

    Bush reiterated his opposition to most abortions but refused to say whether the strongly antiabortion GOP platform plank, a quadrennial battleground within the party, needs to be altered to reflect his belief in a more inclusive party.

    Asked the most important reason for advocating a change in course from the direction set by six years of the Clinton administration, he said: "My worry is that this nation had best be careful, otherwise we're going to leave people behind."

    Others on Bush's exploratory committee are: Michigan Gov. John Engler, Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.), Stanford University provost and former National Security Council staffer Condoleezza Rice and Reps. Anne M. Northup (R-Ky.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Henry Bonilla (R-Tex.).

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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