GOP Aspirants Warned Not to Attack Rivals
By Dan Balz
"Those who aspire to lead our party in 2000 will disqualify themselves from leadership and will be unworthy of our party's presidential nomination if they train their fire during the presidential campaign on other Republicans -- instead of on the liberal opposition where it properly belongs," Nicholson said in a speech to party members in Iowa. His comments reflected growing concern among Republicans that the nomination fight will leave the party badly divided and diminish its chances of winning back the White House in 2000.
RNC communications director Cliff May said Nicholson's speech in Des Moines was "not directed at any specific candidate, it's directed at all candidates." But another GOP strategist called the speech "a shot across the bow" of at least two candidates, former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander and magazine publisher Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes."
Nicholson's speech, a text of which was made available in Washington, came as the already large field of prospective Republican candidates grew by one with the announcement that conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan would take a leave of absence from CNN's "Crossfire" later this week to consider a third consecutive campaign for the GOP nomination. Buchanan has been weighing another campaign for months, spurred by the belief that economic problems in Asia, Russia and Brazil and the prospect of a new U.S. troop deployment to Kosovo would generate a larger audience for his protectionist and nationalistic message.
Nicholson's remarks were prompted by several considerations. The RNC chairman is worried that Vice President Gore may have an easy route to the Democratic nomination and will be able to use his primary season resources to attack the Republicans. His speech was a reminder to his party's candidates to keep their fire aimed at Gore, rather than at one another.
One Republican strategist said Nicholson's comments may have also been prompted by Alexander's recent attacks against Bush and the Texas governor's brand of "compassionate conservatism," which Alexander labeled as "weasel words." The strategist said Nicholson worried, too, about a rerun of the negative campaigning employed by Forbes in 1996.
Brian Kennedy, Alexander's campaign manager, said he knew of no conversation between Nicholson and his candidate on the subject of Alexander's criticism of Bush, noting that his candidate had won an ovation at a recent RNC meeting when he defended his use of the words.
"We need an honest discussion about the policy choices and how we're going to talk about the policy choices in the campaign," Kennedy said. "We don't need to have personal attacks, and I applaud the chairman if that's what he's asking candidates to refrain from. But we'll have a lively debate."
Forbes's 1996 campaign still rankles many top Republicans. The wealthy publisher ran millions of dollars of ads attacking Robert J. Dole in the primaries, and in some states did permanent damage to Dole's candidacy. One GOP official said those kinds of attacks likely would draw criticism from Nicholson if they are repeated in the 2000 primaries.
Bill Dal Col, Forbes's top adviser, said he agreed with Nicholson that personal attacks should be out of bounds in the primaries, but that vigorous debate about policies and past records -- and comparison ads -- are fair game.
"I know that Steve Forbes, if he chooses to run, and he hasn't made that decision, will run an issues campaign as he ran in the past and will never ever get into personal attacks because he's never done it before," Dal Col said. "But he will discuss issues as he always has."
As Nicholson sought to keep the peace among the field of GOP candidates, Republican governors partial to Bush's prospective candidacy continued to canvass support among fellow governors, but delayed making public the list of governors ready to endorse him.
At the same time, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) is privately telling people that he is urging Bush to run for president. Bush and Lott met in Mississippi in November, when Bush visited Lott's home in Pascagoula and had dinner with him and his wife.
Staff writer David Von Drehle contributed to this report.
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