In an article on Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.) yesterday, Bob Jones University was incorrectly located in Greenville, N.C., instead of Greenville, S.C.
Republican presidential candidates seeking to present themselves as the legitimate heirs of the Reagan legacy may have to test their claim against the president's close friend and three-time campaign chairman, Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), who is contemplating a run for the Oval Office.
Laxalt said in a recent interview that he has been urged to run by many longtime supporters of the president, who paid an emotional tribute to him in March and called Laxalt "a man for all seasons." The Nevada senator said he is confident that he can raise the money necessary for an effective campaign but that a decision to run is linked to winning a pending $250 million libel suit against the Sacramento-based McClatchy Newspapers.
"If I run," Laxalt said, "I will be a serious candidate."
Two of Reagan's former White House political directors, Lyn Nofziger and Edward J. Rollins, said they will support Laxalt if he runs. Both believe that the senator appears to be moving toward becoming a candidate.
"If he were making a decision today, he definitely would be going," Rollins said. "If he goes, I'm for him. He represents what the president has stood for and has a good chance of carrying the West, which is crucial to a GOP victory. He has the integrity and a lot of the abilities the president has -- he can excite crowds and has presence on television."
The prospective Laxalt candidacy is of concern to all Republican contenders and particularly worrisome to supporters of George Bush, who believe the vice president will be regarded as the president's choice in 1988 if Laxalt does not run. Last week, a prominent Bush supporter called Laxalt a "keep your powder dry" candidate who has given longtime Reagan supporters both a reason and an excuse for remaining uncommitted.
"I believe that Laxalt will run if he wins the lawsuit and will not if he doesn't," said Paul Weyrich, a prominent conservative activist and friend of Laxalt. "His potential is immense because he would draw on a sea of loyalty that has been pumped up for years by what he has done for all of us. He has Reagan strength, conservative movement strength and religious right strength, all of which he's helped."
What Laxalt does not have, at least for the time being, is a campaign committee in a year in which Bush, Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) and other Republican hopefuls are making serious organizational and fund-raising efforts.
Laxalt, general chairman of the Republican Party, said it would be improper for him to take any action toward a candidacy until he steps down from this post early next year. He also acknowledged that there is "linkage" between the outcome of his libel suit and a presidential candidacy and said he wants the action resolved before he reaches a decision. Laxalt said the lawsuit could drag into 1987.
The suit stems from a 1984 article in The Sacramento Bee which charged that money was improperly skimmed from the Ormsby House Hotel casino in Carson City, Nev., while Laxalt was the owner. The story did not allege that Laxalt knew about the purported skimming, but the senator sued when the McClatchy Newspapers declined to give him a retraction, alleging that he had been defamed through "guilt by association."
Laxalt is financing his suit through a trust fund set up by his daughter, Michelle, that has received gifts up to $5,000 from such "close family friends" as brewery magnate Joseph Coors, cosmetics executive Estee Lauder, former secretary of state Alexander M. Haig Jr. and Spartanburg, S.C., textile executive Roger S. Milliken. Republicans in the camps of other candidates, as well as Laxalt's friends, say he would be able to rely on support of this sort if he runs for president.
In a curious way the libel suit may offer Laxalt a chance to overcome what he and some supporters delicately refer to as "the Nevada problem," which in the past has prevented otherwise presentable Nevada politicians of both parties from becoming national candidates.
The major industry in Nevada is casino gambling, and the casinos are major contributors to political candidates, especially those running or governor. Laxalt served a term as governor before winning the first of two terms in the Senate.
While most casinos in Nevada are respectable businesses, a small minority have been linked in federal investigations to organized crime. This has created a suspicion of taint which, when combined with the views of those who oppose gambling, may have made Nevadans unacceptable on national political tickets.
"This libel trial has given Laxalt a chance to win almost a certification of cleanliness," said a Republican strategist who is not a Laxalt presidential supporter. "It is hard to see how he can be disqualified on the gambling issue if he wins."
In addition to the potential political benefit of winning the lawsuit, Laxalt pointed out that there is growing acceptance of legalized gambling in the United States. He also observed that his support of "family issues" has brought him significant support in the "Bible Belt," where the symbolism of Nevada gambling might be expected to do the most damage.
Dr. Robert Taylor of Bob Jones University in Greenville, N.C., said recently that "most of the politically active fundamentalists are waiting to see who's going to get into the presidential race. You see some Pat Robertson bumper stickers here, and Bush has his PAC Political Action Committee going. But if Sen. Laxalt gets in, he'll be very strong with our people."
Another serious question that Laxalt's friends have about his candidacy -- and that Laxalt has about himself -- is whether he has the interest and energy required for a successful campaign. Laxalt, an affable and effective conduit betweeen the Senate and the White House throughout the Reagan presidency, has the reputation of being easy-going and said he does not "lust for the presidency."
Asked whether he had "the fire in his belly" to be president, Laxalt replied, "I don't have the fire in my belly now, but neither did Ronald Reagan at one time. If I run, I won't be a kamikaze pilot. I'll make an assessment and go all out, or I won't run at all."
Like Reagan, Laxalt is a former college athlete who becomes aroused by competitive pressures. After personal attacks rocked him in his 1974 Senate campaign, Laxalt campaigned vigorously and won a narrow victory. He was reelected in 1980 and disappointed party officials last year by refusing to seek a third term, saying he wanted his "freedom" after 12 years in the Senate.
Laxalt has weak support in public opinion surveys, including only 2 percent in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, less than any prospective candidate. But he claims strong grass-roots support from about 5,000 Republican organizers who remember Laxalt's efforts in Reagan presidential campaigns back to 1976.
Bush, the leading Republican candidate in all surveys, has been trying to capture conservative support for the past two years, but one supporter of the vice president concedes that some of this hard-won backing would be "Laxalt's without asking" if he runs.
Some Laxalt supporters see the contest for the nomination as basically a race between Bush and an alternative candidate. In their view, Laxalt would have to declare his interest in a candidacy soon after he stepped down from the party chairmanship and then quickly demonstrate through organizational efforts that he was the most credible alternative.
One imponderable is the impact of a Laxalt candidacy on Reagan. A longtime associate of the president said that Reagan would never endorse a successor during the primary process, but would find a way to signal his preference for Bush if Laxalt stays out of the race.
"If Paul runs, the president would be torn," this associate said. "He would like Bush, he would like Laxalt. The president leads on political issues by a kind of emotional direction, and the emotional signals from the White House would be confused."