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  •   No Free Ride Toward Bush Nomination

    By David S. Broder
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, March 8, 1999; Page A1

    When Texas Gov. George W. Bush announced the formation of his presidential exploratory committee yesterday, he was able to count on the fact that already he had signed up more endorsements from elected and party officials than anyone else in the Republican field.

    He cannot, however, count on those people to deliver him the nomination.

    The dynamics of a short, intense struggle for that prize dictate that the ideological preferences of grass-roots activists, the finances and tactics of nearly a dozen rivals, and the skill Bush demonstrates as a rookie in the high-stakes game of national politics will determine his chances, according to Republican officials interviewed the past few days.

    Former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour, who is a leader of Bush's exploratory committee, ticked off a variety of factors that have impelled half the GOP governors and hundreds of other officeholders to pledge their support to Bush even before he officially tosses his hat into the ring. But Barbour added: "We will still have a hotly contested competition for the nomination. It will be over early, but that will be because of the primary calendar, not because of Bush."

    Charles Black, a veteran of many presidential campaigns and a Bush supporter, agreed. The endorsements will help on both organization and fund-raising, he said, "but Governor Bush still has to get out there and get the voters. He's going to have to earn it."

    Ever since his landslide reelection to a second term last November, Bush has been playing host to delegations of state officials from California to Alabama and from Iowa to Massachusetts -- all coming to offer support and urge the candidacy of a man few of them know personally. When the nation's governors gathered in Washington two weeks ago, a dozen of them endorsed Bush and several more told him they would join his backers in the next few months.

    But whatever bandwagon psychology the Bush strategists hoped to build was deflated Thursday when Elizabeth Hanford Dole's aides said she will follow Bush into the exploratory committee phase of a presidential candidacy two days from now. Polls show her matching or exceeding Bush in popularity with GOP voters, and both of them lead Vice President Gore in trial heats.

    "It clearly hasn't stopped us, or anybody else, from getting into the race," said Linda DiVall, Dole's pollster.

    Indeed, a canvass of the near-dozen other Republican campaigns found managers and fund-raisers remarkably unfazed at this point about the dazzling array of endorsements Bush has picked up, perhaps with some backstage orchestration but without visible effort on his part.

    The groundswell of support for the former president's eldest son may well become a problem for some of those contenders in the 11 months remaining before the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary kick off an abbreviated calendar of contests. With more and more states rushing to the head of the line, most GOP leaders expect the identity of their nominee to be settled by the end of March at the latest.

    Several managers of past campaigns said the high expectations surrounding Bush present a problem. If he stumbles or is upset in one of the early battles, he will have little time to recover. "And everyone stumbles," Black said.

    Still, the endorsements provide a cushion of support. "Primary voters are a relatively small universe," said Eddie Mahe, a veteran consultant unaffiliated with any presidential candidate. "If they know their governor and their legislators are saying George Bush is our best chance, it reduces the probability they will get involved actively or make contributions to other candidates. The collective result is to make it much more difficult for those other candidates to get traction."

    "There are 11 other people running," said another consultant from past presidential campaigns, "and there is a limited supply of money. I think a lot of these candidates will have a hard time surviving until Thanksgiving."

    That may ultimately prove to be true, but as yet there is no discernible tendency among those other candidates to toss in the towel.

    Take former vice president Dan Quayle, for example. Bernadette Budde, the director of BIPAC, a business political action committee, said, "I would think Quayle would be most affected by the rush to Bush. He would have had the best access to the people who supported him and President Bush in their campaigns. Now he has to go out and build a parallel universe of support."

    But Kyle McSlarrow, Quayle's campaign manager, countered: "It does appear that the Republican establishment folks all got the same message. But the reality for us is that everything we wanted to achieve, we're achieving. We're hiring the people we wanted for our staff and recruiting the grass-roots activists we've gone after. The practical effect has been nil."

    Or take former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander. His second White House effort is judged by many competitors to be perhaps the most vulnerable to the Bush phenomenon because both of them are bidding for mainstream conservatives and moderate Republicans and relying on large donors for their financial support.

    But Steve Schmidt, Alexander's spokesman, said: "Their strategy is to suck all the air out of the room early on, but it's not working. Lamar's fund-raising base produced about 8,000 contributions of $1,000 each in 1996, and the staged George Bush draft will not affect that. We are extremely well organized in Iowa and New Hampshire, where Bush has no organizational presence today. We will see if the product lives up to the hype."

    Democrats hold the governorships of those two states, whose February contests typically winnow the field of contenders down to two or three survivors. The last Republican governor of Iowa, Terry E. Branstad, is supporting Alexander. The governor who helped the older Bush turn back Robert J. Dole in New Hampshire in 1988, John H. Sununu, is with Quayle.

    Black said that by year's end, the younger Bush may be able to field organizations in Iowa and New Hampshire that equal anyone's -- but he is starting from behind.

    Karen Hughes, Bush's spokeswoman, conceded, "We are coming to the game late," adding that Bush plans no out-of-state campaigning until the Texas legislature finishes work this spring. The early endorsements, Hughes said, "give us a way of spreading his message while he cannot campaign himself."

    Whether Bush can actually squeeze potential rivals out of the race is another question, however. Millionaire publisher Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes can finance his own campaign. Social-issue conservatives like Patrick J. Buchanan, Gary Bauer, Alan Keyes and Sen. Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire depend more on the precinct efforts of fellow-believers than on the business and political elites likely to back Bush.

    Bush's effect could be greater on first-time candidates such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Rep. John R. Kasich of Ohio, struggling for financial and organizational footing.

    And even among the establishment Republicans, there are some who hope to see the Bush bandwagon slowed.

    "This is the most open nomination fight we've had in half a century," one party leader said, "and it makes some people nervous not to have an anointed candidate. But Bush needs to be tested -- and I'm convinced he will be. His strength is his obvious potential, but he doesn't have a base the way Ronald Reagan did in 1980 or George Bush did after eight years as vice president. . . . He's still got to convince them he deserves it."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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