HOUSTON — AS George Bush rallied the Republican faithful here in his hometown last night, the field of 1996 GOP presidential aspirants was already trying to kindle the essential sparks of political hope - money and public exposure.
"There's no question the presidential race for 1996 has begun," says Jeffrey Eisenach, executive director of GOPAC, an organization that works to train and fund Republican candidates.
Although even the most ambitious hopeful wouldn't risk a straightforward public announcement of candidacy while the party is trying to unite for a tough fall election season, several have "gotten over the hump of saying, `yes, probably,' " Mr. Eisenach says.
Two independent polls of delegates here this week showed Jack Kemp, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, to be favored by more than 30 percent for the 1996 presidential nomination. Others trailing with 10 percent or less of delegate support included: Vice President Dan Quayle; Texas Sen. Phil Gramm; Patrick Buchanan, a candidate in the recent presidential primaries; Bush Cabinet members James Baker III, Richard Cheney, and Lamar Alexander; California Gov. Pete Wilson; Massachusetts Gov. Willia m Weld, former Education Secretary William Bennett, and former Delaware Gov. Pete du Pont. These polls are only interesting early indicators of what the presidential field will look like in 1996, political analysts say. But they caution that many political turns of events are likely to happen just the next few months.
"All sorts of deals are being cut, some of which won't be remembered in the morning," says Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster with Public Opinion Strategies in Alexandria, Va.
He and other analysts say a Bush-Quayle victory or defeat in November is the most important determinant of who emerges as strong candidates. A defeat would certainly eliminate Quayle from the 1996 field, they say.
Further, explains Republican strategist Ed Rollins, "there's a lot of shaking, rattling, and rolling" in an effort to redefine GOP goals. The party, he says, has not had a clear mission since the Reagan years, and that shows up in divisiveness between moderates and conservatives.
Several of the possible 1996 candidates were given valuable podium time this week during the convention. Speakers like Kemp, Gramm, and Quayle who got prime-time network exposure stumping for Bush were doing double duty by creating the sound-bites - complete with a roaring audience of party loyalists arrayed before them - that will become their own presidential advertisements, says William Schneider, an analyst with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
Still, the actual speeches themselves this week "didn't lift any of these speakers to prominence. No one emerged as a great orator," observes Paul Light, a professor at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. He adds, though, that a disastrous speech by Bill Clinton at the 1988 Democratic Convention didn't stop him from becoming this year's nominee.
As important as television exposure, says pollster Bolger, is the opportunity to meet the big campaign donors and grass-roots political activists congregated here on the convention floor, at posh receptions, and in discreet meetings.
Convention delegates from the early primary states of New Hampshire and Iowa had no trouble identifying 1996 prospects, who lavished them with party invitations and visits to delegation meetings. The "special attention" is hard to misinterpret, though candidates aren't saying specifically they are running for president, says Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, chair of his delegation.
New Hampshire delegate Tom Rath says that when these politicians say, "We'll be up to see you," it's a sure sign the 1996 race is on.