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  •   Many GOP Governors Ready to Back Bush

    Bush and Engler, AP
    Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) and Michigan Gov. John Engler (R) at the National Governors' Association meeting Monday. (AP)
    By Dan Balz and David S. Broder
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Tuesday, February 23, 1999; Page A1

    At least half the nation's Republican governors are ready to endorse the presidential nomination of George W. Bush and, in a preemptive show of force, may declare themselves in favor of the Texas governor as early as today.

    The virtually unprecedented mobilization for an undeclared, non-incumbent White House hopeful emerged out of a flurry of conversations among the 31 GOP state executives attending the mid-winter meeting of the National Governors' Association here.

    Three early Bush enthusiasts Michigan Gov. John Engler, Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci and Montana Gov. Marc Racicot began sounding out their colleagues soon after they arrived Saturday. When they found that more than half those they contacted were ready to support Bush, they decided to step up their efforts to reach the rest and convert their informal pledges into some kind of statement.

    Racicot said, "If 15 or 20 of us sign on, it would show he has a significant base of support" among his fellow governors. "It could help him make up his mind to run."

    Support for Bush among the GOP governors is not a great surprise. Among the group is his brother Jeb, the newly elected governor of Florida, and the governors of neighboring states like Oklahoma, Louisiana and New Mexico. Others have close ties to his father, former president George Bush.

    Bush has said he will defer a final decision on whether to become a candidate until the Texas legislature completes its current session this spring.

    Early polls put him and Elizabeth Hanford Dole, the former president of the American Red Cross, at the top of the prospective Republican field.

    Bush has maintained that family considerations still could preclude a campaign in 2000, but all visible evidence is that his wife and teenage twin daughters are likely to support a decision to run. His own staff is telling people they expect him to become a candidate.

    For months, Bush has been actively preparing for a presidential campaign. He has met with domestic and foreign policy experts, prospective fund-raisers and political operatives on a regular basis in Austin.

    He also has been besieged by delegations of state legislators and party officials urging him to become a candidate. In the past month, contingents of legislators from California, Iowa and South Carolina have pressed him to enter the 2000 race.

    That kind of institutional support would give Bush a significant advantage in the Republican primaries next year, particularly against a candidate like magazine publisher Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes, who has unlimited personal wealth. Republican governors, who control political and fund-raising operations in their states, are Bush's most important potential allies.

    Racicot, who said he had begun urging Bush to become a presidential candidate at least a year before the Texan's landslide reelection victory last November, said a principal reason so many governors are prepared to support him is his "demonstrated ability to win" all kinds of voters.

    "He's strong, he's sensitive to people, he's tough, he's durable and there's a genuine sense of liking him," Racicot said.

    The offers of support spanned the ideological range of the governors, from moderates like Cellucci and Connecticut's John G. Rowland to conservatives like Idaho's Dirk Kempthorne and Utah's Mike Leavitt.

    According to knowledgeable sources, the early results of the canvass confirmed that two governors Tennessee's Don Sundquist and Arkansas' Mike Huckabee are supporting former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander. Two others, Mississippi's Kirk Fordice and Nebraska's Mike Johanns, are likely to back former vice president Dan Quayle. New York Gov. George E. Pataki has begun a series of out-of-state speeches and is regarded by the Bush backers as someone who may have favorite-son or dark-horse hopes of his own.

    After serving eight years as vice president, Bush's father was helped in his quest for the nomination in 1988 by many of the Republican governors. Many of them also lined up behind then-Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole and helped him win the 1996 nomination.

    But Dole spent much of 1995 painstakingly wooing individual governors and many of them came aboard only late in the year. The enthusiasm for Bush has brought out earlier support from the governors than was visible in 1996 or 1988.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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