George Bush was introduced as "the next vice president of the United States." House minority leader John Rhodes was introduced as the "next speaker of the House." And Bethesda businessman Newton Steers Jr. was called to the microphone as "our former and future congressman."
In short, the 300 Republicans who gathered last night on the manicured back lawn at Rhodes' Bethesda home have a fairly sweeping vision of the political landscape they'd like to see -- from the White House to Congress to Montgomery County -- after the November election.
The official purpose of the gathering was to raise money for a local contest -- Steers' challenge to Rep. Michael Barnes, the freshman Democrat who has recently bounded to political center stage as one of the leading advocates of an open Democratic convention. Toward that end, the $150-a-person event netted about $15,500 -- $6,500 in advance and $9,000 in contributions at the door.
But with Bush as special guest, making his first solo appearance on the campaign trail in the role of Republican vice presidential nominee, and with Rhodes as host, the event took on much broader dimensions.
Barnes, who captured his seat in a close race with Steers two years ago, has been targeted by Republicans as one of the Democratics who can be beaten in November. And that fits rather neatly into Rhodes' drive for speaker of the House. In fact, as dozens of people wearing Rhodes-for-Speaker buttons munched hors d'oeuvres in his back yard, the minority leader acknowledged that the party had as much to do with his won political ambitions as with Steers'.
"I've got to get 218 warm Republican bodies" to get a Republican Congress, said Rhodes. "This could certainly be the source of one." The House minority leader, wearing an Ultrasuede jacket, noted that the Republicans have targeted 79 other seats around the country, and have made plans to support Steers "all we can under the law."
The event gave Bush his first outing as the moderate partner to the conservative leading man on the Republican ticket. As he had at the convention, Bush did some rhetorical dancing to stay away from his philosophical differences with Ronald Reagan.
Fresh from meetings with Reagan in California, Bush assured Montgomery County's traditionally moderate Republicans that he is "very pleased with my discussions with Mr. Reagan. The way you judge something is whether the common ground outweighs the differences."
Bush's few minutes at the podium drew resounding applause, a reminder that he was the favorite over Reagan in Montgomery County during the Republican primary. Steers' political positions, like Bush's during the primary, are considerably more moderate than those espoused in the Republican platform. But Bush declined to comment on those differences.
"I tried to explain that in my remarks, that we must find strength in diversity," he said, shaping his hands into a cup as if cutting out a concept in the air. "No two people agree on everything."
Steers, a one-term congressman from 1976-78, is attacking Barnes sternly for his role in the "dump Carter" movement. He brands Barnes, a liberal Democrat, as a "rubber stamp" for the administration, and maintains that the young congressman's moves are a sign of desperation rather than sincerity.
"Mike Barnes is sacrificing principle and policy on the altar of politics and personality," said state Sen. Howard A. Denis, Steers' campaign chairman. That remark from the speakers' platform prompted Bush to murmur under his breath. "Hmmm, a no-holds-barred campaign."
The crowd milled around Rhodes' back yard, near the tomato plants he proudly displayed as the product of his own gardening efforts. Well-dressed guests sipped cocktails and hovered around an elaborate spread of dips and crackers, occasionally discussing politics. The guest list included 800 political action committees and only 600 local voters.
"Hey, I've got the chairman of Florida Power and Light here," said Fred Webber, head of a trade association of utility companies. He called the liberal Barnes "a disaster. He does not have the best interests of the American business community in mind. We want to see Mr. Steers come back." a
With Bush's departure, the crowd began to disperse, although a few stalwarts waited around for Sen. Charles McC. Mathias (R-Md.), who was delayed because of his role on the Senate committee investigating the activities of First Brother Billy Carter.
As Bush headed for his car, Karen Wise, a friend of Steers' from Virginia, grabbed the vice presidential hopeful's arm and said. "From an uninformed female voter, you'd make a darned good-looking vice president."
Steers' wife, Gabriele, murmured, "He is good looking I hope he's that good looking in November."