Sizing Up the GOP Herd
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 4, 1999; Page A4
MANCHESTER, N.H., May 3—Running for president of the United States, nine months from the first primary, can be slightly grubby work, schlepping your own bags, pleading for money -- not to mention the cattle calls.
There was a big one here Sunday night. The state Republican Party issued invitations to all 11 known aspirants to the GOP nomination, offering each of them seven minutes to address an audience of more than 1,000 dedicated party members.
The lofty purpose of such events is democracy; the more crass purpose is fund-raising: This event drew a packed house at $150 per surf-'n-turf plate, making it "the largest gross and the largest net" in New Hampshire Republican history, according to the emcee.
And there is a harsher purpose, which is why political professionals use the term "cattle call." This is a chance to size up the beef, to cast the cold eye of a meat-packer on the animals in the pen. (Alternate slang: "beauty pageant." Same difference.)
Eight of the 11 candidates accepted the call. They drew lots for the order in which they would speak, then one by one paraded their wares. It was a tough room to work, a barn-like, split-level "ballroom" -- all angles and obstructed views -- echoing with the clank of cutlery and the roar of conversation.
Seven minutes is not long to explain why a person should be the leader of the free world. Not when GOP liturgy requires the ritual invocation of God, lower taxes and a stronger military, along with obligatory attacks on liberalism, Chinese spies and the turpitude of President Clinton.
But seven minutes was all they got. Then the band started playing. Elizabeth Dole -- according to polls one of the country's most admired women -- arrived at the gut-wrenching part of your speech, the part about the horrors and lessons of war, the part that begins "I recently visited Macedonia . . . " only to have some light lounge music cut her off.
Seven minutes is, for better or worse, just enough time to make an impression, and the impression each candidate hoped to make was "presidential" -- that vague blend of purpose and likability and inspiration. Very few candidates arrive aglow with the presidential aura, so the subtext of nearly every speech was: I am better than you think I am.
For Gary Bauer, longtime head of the social conservative Family Research Council, "better" meant being more than a Beltway crusader for the Christian Right. So he introduced himself as "the son of a janitor" and tied his defense of religious values to the girl who was murdered at Columbine High School after her killer asked: "Do you believe in God?"
For Dole, better meant tougher -- toughness being the ball and chain that female candidates seemed cursed to drag through political life. So she sent her press secretary to warn the gathered media that she would embrace gun control in her speech. In the decidedly pro-gun New Hampshire GOP, that's a tough thing to do.
And so on. Former vice president Dan Quayle, the most mocked man in the party, was as grave as Suetonius. Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes, to the manner born, grabbed the microphone and spoke with a hand jammed in his pocket.
Lamar Alexander, former governor of Tennessee, wanted credibility. His 1996 campaign failed to catch fire and, though he never stopped running, his poll numbers remain asbestos. So he was focused and lively and reminded the crowd that even their sainted Ronald Reagan fell short of the nomination his first time out.
Not that everyone took this tack. Rep. John R. Kasich of Ohio, chairman of the House Budget Committee, sounded like he was running for chairman of the House Budget Committee.
And then there was Alan Keyes, talk show host, former diplomat, keeper of the antiabortion flame. He was fiercely and flamboyantly himself, deriding efforts by the party's leading candidates to downplay the issue, and mocking calls by party leaders to honor Reagan's "11th Commandment": "Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican."
"President Reagan is still my president," Keyes roared, "but God is still my God!"
The cattle were instantly and mercilessly rated. The gathering of national political reporters judged the livestock well below choice, which is pretty typical for these things. Charles Cook, political newsletter publisher, gave Alexander his top grade, a B-plus, and awarded the same mark to Sen. Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire, who has all the makings of a "favorite son" campaign except for the "favorite" part.
Smith's speech was illuminating in one respect: Until he wrapped up the evening, not one Republican had breathed a word about the party's effort to force Clinton from office. Impeachment? Smith called shame down on any Republican who had voted to acquit Clinton in the Senate trial.
As for the audience, there was a vigorous cheering section for Forbes, perhaps the lowest of the low-taxers, and Keyes drew his usual rousing ovation: Keyes doesn't give political speeches, he gives grand opera. There was the usual musing to the effect of Why don't we like Lamar more? Dole's fight-picking approach left a lot of people mystified.
Afterward much of the buzz had to do with the no-shows. Commentator Patrick J. Buchanan still has supporters here, though the number has dwindled since his 1992 insurgency. Several reporters wondered how Arizona Sen. John McCain's hawkish approach to the Kosovo crisis might have played. (Badly, judging from the cheers that erupted every time U.S. intervention was bashed.)
But when it was all said and done the prize steer was the one down in Texas, George W. Bush. It's not uncommon for the leading candidate to avoid cattle calls -- or their evil twins, the straw polls. The risk of saying no is that you'll make the party angry, and in this case the danger was small. Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire delivered one of the warm-up speeches, and when he fractured protocol to put in a plug for Bush, there was a lot of shouting and applause.
The risk of saying yes, for Bush, was much greater. He already has poll ratings around 50 percent. Money and endorsements are coming so fast he can barely count them. Given that Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg would be hard pressed to improve on that situation in seven short minutes, why chance it? He might wind up looking like just another cow.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company