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    By Terry M. Neal and Ceci Connolly
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Monday, August 25, 1997; Page A01

    In what is supposed to be the sleepiest month on the political calendar, more than 1,200 midwestern Republicans gathered here this weekend for the unofficial launch of the 2000 presidential campaign – three years before voters go to the ballot box.

    The crowd saw a lineup of GOP stars worthy of a national party convention, hoping one will be able to reclaim the White House after eight years under President Clinton. About the only people at the gathering who didn't want to talk openly about a presidential election were the potential contestants themselves.

    But their actions told a different story.

    Sen. Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) swooped in Saturday from Washington to sign autographs and pose with a cherubic toddler – perhaps the first baby photo of the 2000 campaign.

    Former vice president Dan Quayle came in from his new home of Arizona to pose for hundreds of snapshots with fans at the Indianapolis Speedway. Texas Gov. George W. Bush, no stranger to presidential politics, spent a brief four hours in Indianapolis before dashing out waving off a pack of reporters with "Gotta go. Got a plane to catch."

    Jack Kemp, the 1996 vice presidential nominee, flew in for the closing lunch today.

    Along the way, they all paused to give very presidential sounding speeches.

    The four were part of a cast of possible presidential candidates that also included publisher Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes, former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and radio host Alan Keyes.

    Mayor Stephen Goldsmith (R), basking in the attention his city was receiving, talked with a big smile on his face about how much he enjoyed "meeting with all of the presidential candidates" attending the Midwest Republican Leadership Conference. Reminded that none had officially announced their campaigns, the GOP mayor said: "What else would you call them? They all look like presidential candidates to me."

    Thompson was one of the few speakers to make even an oblique reference to the lineup of presidential aspirants.

    "Someone came in and asked me about this beauty contest that we were having here today," he said, drawing chuckles from the crowd at a luncheon Saturday. "Well, I've seen the list of all of us beauty contestants, and I hope they have more than one prize for Mr. Congeniality, because there ain't going to be any beauty awards handed out, I don't think."

    In an interview, Quayle said he would place himself "in the category of 'might have presidential ambitions.' "

    Kemp today came down squarely on both sides of the presidential campaign question.

    "Newt and the Republicans ought to be focusing on '98, not 2000," he told reporters. "The American people do not want perpetual races for the presidency."

    But he then detailed his myriad activities to keep his profile high and rekindle some of the enthusiasm activists lost for him in the last campaign. His political action committee is raising money and he has stepped up his travel to key primary states and abroad. "All those things are part and parcel of my being ready to make a decision subsequent to the '98 elections."

    Under traditional circumstances, it would be absurd to begin discussing a presidential campaign more than three years before an election. But these are not normal times, said many of the party activists gathered here for the three-day conference that ended today. Republican loyalists said they were concerned about a lack of direction in the party and are looking for a successor worthy of the mantle of Ronald Reagan, whose name was invoked constantly by conference participants.

    "I think all of these people are here because this country is looking for strong leadership," said Neil Alldredge, 26, of Indianapolis, echoing a common theme. "There is a void in leadership in this country."

    Many conference attendees said Republicans were taking more serious than ever the need to begin early to identify a qualified, inspirational leader who could unite the party. Last year, many predicted, was the last race the party would nominate a candidate based on seniority – a reference to the early lock Robert J. Dole had on the GOP nomination.

    Duke Powell, 42, a paramedic from Burnsville, Minn., said: "The field's wide open. There is no front-runner. It's a new generation. We'll see who's going to be electable."

    Ohio state Treasurer Kenneth Blackwell said the record turnout for the gathering here and the large number of national party figures in attendance was all the proof needed that the presidential campaign was underway. Normally, the conference draws fewer than 600 activists and little national news media attention.

    "Like it or not, the presidential cycle started immediately after the last election," said Blackwell, who is seeking the gubernatorial nomination in his state. "This is a tremendous opportunity for defining the direction of the party and identifying the leadership of the party into the 21st century."

    There was some of the old and a bit of the new on display at the conference. Outsiders are still in, labor unions out. That flat tax is hot – every major speaker latched onto the idea, the centerpiece of Forbes's campaign last year. And Keyes, who also ran for the GOP nomination in 1996, is still the most reliable rabble rouser.

    Perhaps the two biggest surprises of the weekend, according to many delegates who have made politician-watching a part-time profession, were that Quayle exceeded expectations while Bush fell a bit short of them. Quayle delivered a forceful speech without notes. Bush read from a text his aides said he has used before.

    "I was real inspired by Dan Quayle," said Nanette Okorowski, 45, a flight attendant from Sidney, Ohio. "He's come a long way."

    Despite his years in Congress and the four he spent as vice president, Quayle marketed himself as an anti-Washington candidate, offering one of the more vigorous critiques of the GOP-led Congress and its recent budget deal with President Clinton.

    Kemp left his football at home and Alexander sported a suit and tie instead of the plaid shirt of last year's campaign. But beyond the minor stylistic adjustments, the two men sounded themes remarkably similar to those they pitched in 1996.

    At breakfast Saturday, Alexander said it was time for the GOP to say farewell to the World War II generation and find a new group of leaders with some fresh ideas. "That generation of national leaders has gracefully stepped aside," he said. "It's time to stop grousing and complaining and backbiting."

    One theme prevalent in every speech was the need to reestablish strong leadership that would not compromise conservative principles in the face of strong opposition from a Democratic president. That theme alluded to the dismay expressed by many Republicans that party leaders had moved too far to the middle in the recent deal to trim taxes and balance the budget by 2002.

    Bailey Turner, 64, a retiree from Cincinnati, said he was thrilled that the Midwest was playing an important role in identifying early potential candidates.

    And while the speakers gave him something to think about, he said they didn't make it easy for him to pick an early favorite.

    "I thought Alan Keyes was electrifying, but he basically said the same thing that Alexander said," said Turner. "And Alexander basically said the same thing that Bush said. . . . So we'll see. It's real early."

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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