With Virginia's governor acting as matchmaker, the leaders of Northern Virginia's high-technology companies had their first date with Republican presidential hopeful George W. Bush at a luncheon that raised close to half a million dollars for the candidate.
Organizers called the event the largest-ever expression of support for a presidential candidate by the emerging power brokers in Northern Virginia. More than 400 senior executives crammed a ballroom at the Tysons Corner Ritz Carlton hotel, where they erupted into applause when Bush was introduced by Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) as "the next Webmaster of www.whitehouse.gov."
After his swing through Northern Virginia, which included a visit to a technology camp for middle school students in Fairfax County, Bush stopped in the District to pick up the endorsement of Rep. John R. Kasich (R-Ohio) as the House budget chairman dropped out of the presidential race. Later, in Baltimore, Bush visited a social services organization and held a dinner, which raised about $400,000 more for his campaign.
With industry leaders such as America Online's Steve Case in attendance, the Virginia lunch crowd offered Bush a chance to test themes he will use in the state's Feb. 29 presidential primary.
He did just that at a closed-door round-table discussion with executives and then later in a speech.
"I'm here in high-tech heaven to share my heart. I believe in the American dream," the Texas governor said. "Wealth is created by entrepreneurs and dreamers and doers. I believe Northern Virginia, like Texas, is an entrepreneurial heaven."
Referring to himself as a "compassionate conservative," Bush said, "I welcome the label. On this ground I will make my stand."
William Collins, chief executive of Fairfax-based Metrocall Inc., a nationwide wireless paging company, said Bush's agenda of lower taxes and less government involvement has impressed his colleagues who deal with computer chips and high-speed data lines for a living.
Todd Stottlemyer, a senior vice president at BTG Inc. in Fairfax, said the round-table discussion focused on Bush's views on education, the role of the Internet and the needs of business.
Stottlemyer said Bush's embrace of the Northern Virginia technology community would play a big role in his campaign.
"It's a recognition that this is a very important and potent force in the world economy, frankly," Stottlemyer said. Many of the executives were first-time presidential donors, Stottlemyer said.
Outside the Ritz Carlton, about three dozen members of the Virginia Young Democrats were joined by state Senate candidate and former delegate and congresswoman Leslie L. Byrne to protest the GOP stand on gun control. "They are out of step with Northern Virginians by failing to make gun safety part of their campaign," she said.
President Clinton, speaking yesterday to a group of centrist Democrats in Baltimore, took aim at the "compassionate conservatism" theme.
"Near as I can tell, here's what it means," Clinton said. "It means, 'I like you. I do. And I would like to be for the Patients' Bill of Rights, and I'd like to be for closing the gun show loophole [regarding buyer background checks], and I'd like not to squander the [budget] surplus and, you know, save Social Security and Medicare for the next generation. I'd like to raise the minimum wage. I'd like to do these things. But I just can't, and I feel terrible about it.' "
A spokesman for Vice President Gore, who has cultivated a high-tech image, predicted that Gore would find plenty of support in the new technology centers of Northern Virginia, Silicon Valley and elsewhere.
"The high-tech industry knows that Al Gore will continue to be there for them as president," said Gore 2000 spokesman Roger Salazar.
When Bush stopped in Washington to receive the endorsement from Kasich, he was asked what chance his former competitor--who many think would like to be director of the Office of Management and Budget--has for a job in a Bush administration. "They just increased," Bush said.
Then Kasich was asked whether he would be interested in a job in a Bush administration. He began what was likely to be a long, serious response about his commitment to public service--"All I want to do . . . "--when Bush nudged him aside and declared: "Course he would be."
Bush went on to Baltimore for a fund-raiser aides said would bring in $400,000 and a stop at The Door, a nondenominational social agency, where he vowed to "empower" such faith-based organizations if he became president.
The Texas governor brushed off Clinton's criticisms. Bush asked, as he has done before: "What part don't they like--compassion or conservatism?" His spokeswoman, Karen Hughes, said: "I find it fascinating the president is paying so much attention to the governor. They must be a little worried."
At the East Baltimore social services site, Bush was accompanied by Kasich, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R-Md.) and Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the former gubernatorial candidate who is his Maryland chairman. He chatted with local workers who are rehabilitating abandoned row houses and at the same time learning skills that can help them off welfare.
In Northern Virginia, he answered questions from youngsters in a summer computer skills workshop. One boy pointedly asked if Bush would raise the minimum wage if he became president. Bush said there were circumstances where he might but added, "I'm afraid of pricing teenagers out of work."
Staff writers Charles Babington, David S. Broder and Thomas B. Edsall contributed to this report.
CAPTION: GOP presidential hopeful George W. Bush visits with middle school students at a Northern Virginia computer skills camp.