GOP's field of dreamers

Sure, some think they can win. For others, it's notoriety - or just ajob.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Texas Gov. George W. Bush isn't the only Republican announcing his presidential ambitions this week.

On Tuesday, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander goes the full monty and declares he's really and truly running for president. And on Wednesday, former American Red Cross chief Elizabeth Dole moves her nascent political career up a notch by announcing a presidential exploratory committee.

That brings to nine the number of Republicans either exploring or officially vying for the nomination, not including another certain candidate, publisher Steve Forbes, and conservative firebrand Alan Keyes, who's also making noises about running.

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What are all these people thinking? Some seem to truly believe they're poised to take over as the top prospect if Mr. Bush and Mrs. Dole stumble. Who genuinely belongs in that category is a matter of opinion. Some GOP analysts say Mr. Forbes belongs in the top tier, because of his money and his flat-tax message. Others put Arizona Sen. John McCain up there, because he's a maverick and could appeal to the 40 percent of the electorate that identifies itself as independent.

But if you're consistently being ranked in the second or third tier of candidates, what's the point of continuing?

"Every one of these candidates has an unlikely, but not implausible scenario ... whereby they do become the nominee," says Jay Severin, a New York-based GOP consultant. "All involve Bush and Dole stumbling badly."

Jack Pitney, a political analyst at Claremont-McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., isn't quite as charitable. "Don't underestimate the power of self-delusion," he says. "What a lot of second-tier candidates are hoping for is that expectations will be so low that even a mildly miserable showing will turn into a victory."

Mr. Pitney notes that in the 1984 Iowa caucuses, Colorado Sen. Gary Hart (D) was way behind former Vice President Walter Mondale, but did slightly better than expected. He was able to slingshot that into a victory in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary.

The expectations game

So for Sen. Bob Smith (R) of New Hampshire, a candidate who barely registers in early polls, the calculation may be that scoring even in the high single digits in the New Hampshire primary could give him a bounce.

Republican strategist Charles Black, who is backing Bush, divides the pack into three groups: Bush, Dole, and Senator McCain are the top tier. Then comes what is being dubbed the "primary of the right," featuring commentator Pat Buchanan, conservative activist Gary Bauer, former Vice President Dan Quayle, and Forbes. The "extreme underdogs" are Mr. Alexander and Rep. John Kasich of Ohio, chairman of the House Budget Committee.

In a way, Forbes is the hardest candidate to place. Since his last run, he has courted the social conservatives, to some effect, yet still retains his strong economic message. "I don't put him in the first tier of candidates, though I tell you, he's a very serious player because of his money," Mr. Black said at a Monitor breakfast. "I don't see how he's nominated or elected, but he'll be a big factor in this race ... because of the money he has to spend and his history of being willing to spend it in negative broadsides against other candidates."

Steve Merksamer, a GOP activist in California who is as yet uncommitted, points out that besides Bush and Dole, Forbes is the other candidate being talked about in California. "I think he's the only one who has what it takes to go to the end," he says.

Of all the candidates, Mr. Buchanan elicits the most emotional response among analysts. Some quip that he's running again to boost his speaking fees. A run for the president guarantees a profile in The New York Times and free TV time.

But with this, his third campaign, he gives the impression that he's doing it more for fun than for keeps. He has no staff - not even his sister Bay is involved this time - just his populist message of economic protectionism and a strong anti-abortion stance.

But GOP analysts are wary that Buchanan could cause trouble. The press likes to cover his lively speeches, and if his message gets any traction this time around - a big "if," given the strong economy - he could distract the other candidates.

The underdogs

One of the most curious campaigns is that of Alexander, who hasn't stopped running since the 1996 campaign. He has a rsum of accomplishment: governor of Tennessee, US secretary of Education, success in business. And he performed respectably in New Hampshire last time, placing third and nearly beating eventual nominee Bob Dole for second place, behind Buchanan.

But he's just not being taken seriously this time by most GOP elders. It may be that he has nothing in particular to distinguish himself from the pack - he's fighting for the same constituency that Bush and Dole are: mainstream conservatives.

Mr. Severin, the New York consultant, calls him "our Al Gore." "There there are two ways to excite somebody in a primary: ideology and personality," he says. "Ideally you have both. I don't know anyone who believes Lamar Alexander [is going to do that]."

There are plausible explanations for why the other two longshots, Mr. Bauer and Mr. Kasich, are running, aside from any belief they may have that they might actually win. Bauer himself acknowledges he's a long-shot, but that by running and losing he'll call attention to his anti-abortion cause. He may also be looking to Pat Robertson, who ran for president in 1988, gained a national audience, then turned his mailing list into the Christian Coalition.

For Kasich, the 2000 race may well be a dry run for 2004, in case the Republicans don't win in 2000.

"Kasich needs some more gray hairs," says Pitney. "He may be trying to set himself up for a future run. Is that smart? Yes."

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