Bush, escaping Iran-contra web, claims lead in Republican race

Aides to the George Bush campaign say that they are poised to blow away the competition. With fears of being pulled down by the Iran-contra affair now largely behind Vice-President Bush, several indicators show him to be well ahead of the pack.

Bush is way out front in fund raising, in support from state organizations, in public opinion polls, and among Republican activists.

``We plan to win from Day 1. We are not conceding a single primary,'' says one Bush campaign officer. The same official, who has known the vice-president since the 1980 campaign, describes Bush as ``all fired up. He is feeling very good about the prospects for the campaign.''

Late last week, Bush's campaign staff was busy planning a ceremony for today, when the vice-president would be handed a large mock check for $10 million, representing what the campaign has raised. The staff was also planning to hand him a promissory note for another $10 million, representing what they plan to raise between now and the election.

In reports to the Federal Election Commission released last week, Bush was well ahead of the other Republican candidates. Listing contributions received as of June 30, Bush topped the list at $9.4 million. The other candidates: Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas, at $3.9 million; Rep. Jack Kemp of New York, $3.4 million; former Delaware Gov. Pete DuPont, $1.4 million; former Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt, $814,000; and former Secretary of State Alexander Haig, at $465,000.

Things were not always so comfortable for Bush. When the Iran-contra affair first began to make headlines during the end of last year, there was a ``temporary freeze in [Bush's] progress,'' according to Sidney M. Milkis, a specialist in presidential and election politics at Brandeis University.

``Bush was hurt in the beginning,'' Mr. Milkis says, ``which allowed candidates like Bob Dole to challenge him. There has been no further decline since January, which bodes well for Bush,'' he says.

From the beginning of the controversy, Bush has maintained he knew nothing of the diversion of funds, and that neither he nor his staff was involved in directing or coordinating activities of the contras in Central America. Nothing revealed in the hearings has disputed Bush's statements.

Bush is telling supporters publicly that the hearings have not affected his campaign. Contributions are one way to measure changing popularity, and Bush campaign staff members say there has been no drop in support. Two political scientists at Furman University have just completed a survey of 3,400 of contributors to the candidate's personal political action committees, and to other Republican activists.

When asked who they would place as their first choice for the Republican nomination, Bush received 45 percent, Senator Dole 15 percent, Mr. Kemp 12 percent, Mr. Robertson 3 percent, and Mr. Laxalt and Mr. Haig each received 1 percent.

To see if the hearings had much effect on the vice-president's popularity, Furman Profs. John C. Green and James L. Guth compared the first 250 responses received last September with the last 200 received between April and June.

``The interesting thing is, the support for George Bush has not diminished,'' says Professor Green. ``As far as our data indicate, he is still very much out ahead.''

Green gives two possible explanations. First, among Republican activists, the scandal has yet to hurt Bush. Second, the highly educated and sophisticated activists are unimpressed with the hearings, seeing them more as political theater than serious events. The same was not true for the President, however, who lost 10 percentage points during the same period.

Green is not convinced that the vice-president was completely free of the Iran-contra aftermath. ``Bush's competitors have not gone after him yet,'' he points out. ``Jack Kemp or Pat Robertson might use this stuff to try to win a primary.''

At least one part of Lt. Col. Oliver North's testimony may actually bolster the Bush image. When asked why he kept bringing up Bush's name in regard to a possible meeting with a high Iranian official, Colonel North explained that he thought Bush would be a good candidate for such a meeting because of his courage.

According to his testimony, which the vice-president's office verified, North had accompanied Bush to El Salvador to meet with officials in support of judicial reforms, democratization, and human rights. This was a time, according to North, when right-wing death squads were very active, and Congress and the White House were disturbed about the prospects of continued aid to El Salvador unless progress was made.

North described one meeting where Bush ``sat down with a number of [armed] men who were violently opposed to our policy.... His Secret Service detail objected ... vociferously ... [and] tried to prevent it. And the vice-president himself demanded that the meeting proceed ... and sat there with those people and told them what must be done in order for the United States to continue ... security assistance.

``It is,'' said North at the conclusion of the story, ``in my humble opinion, one of the bravest things I've seen for anybody.''

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