Paul Laxalt's sudden exit from the 1988 Republican presidential race should help George Bush - but only a little. Former Senator Laxalt, a political sidekick to Ronald Reagan, was expected to draw a lot of the President's backers to his side and away from Mr. Bush. But Laxalt's nascent campaign wilted from a lack of money and enthusiasm.
Laxalt's withdrawal sets the Republican stage for September, when the presidential race is expected to start crackling.
Over the summer, there have been several developments:
Bush has increased and solidified his front-runner position over the field. He leads Sen. Robert Dole by 40 percent to 18 percent in the most recent (July) Gallup Poll.
Senator Dole, after months of improving his standing, appears to have leveled off. Dole currently is barnstorming through 29 states in 29 days to breathe new fire into his campaign.
US Rep. Jack Kemp, after months of stagnation in the polls, has made steady gains since spring. This has strengthened his position as the strongest of the conservative candidates.
Former Delaware Gov. Pierre (Pete) du Pont IV, another conservative, also has inched up from about 2 percent in the polls in April to as high as 6 percent in a recent CBS/New York Times poll. Mr. du Pont could win valuable support in the New Hampshire primary from the influential Manchester Union-Leader newspaper.
Yet Bush remains the man to beat. Political analyst Richard Scammon, director of the Elections Research Center, observes that ``no one has laid a glove on Bush. Iran-contra didn't hurt. Just as a year ago, Bush remains the candidate of the [party] apparat, with a good organization that has been hard at work for him for six years.''
Former Sen. Barry Goldwater, during a recent interview at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., said: ``I think George has the best organization, he has the money, he has the know-how. I can't see any other Republican with the organization or the money that can now fill the bill.''
Apparently, that is how Laxalt saw it, too.
The former governor and United States senator from Nevada had vowed to launch his bid around Labor Day if he could raise $2 million to run a viable campaign. To his surprise, he had been able to raise only a little over $1 million by this week. In contrast, Bush has raised almost $11 million.
````We are a family of very modest economic means, and I wasn't about to embark on a campaign that would have led us into a financial black hole,'' Laxalt said in a statement issued by his campaign committee.
Although he did not mention it, Laxalt was probably also discouraged by the lack of public enthusiasm over his race. He has been drawing only 1 or 2 percent in the polls, and there was no indication of momentum.
As the campaign heats up this fall, other candidates are expected to focus their fire on Bush. They must draw him into debate, and point up his weaknesses, if anyone is to overtake him.
Bush has been holding back, as frontrunners normally do. He will not officially begin his campaign until fall. He has turned down chances to debate fellow Republicans.
Recently, under some criticism for failing to spell out his vision for the country, Bush relented and agreed to a nationally-televised debate with other Republicans on Oct. 28. The debate will be held in Bush's hometown (Houston) under the auspices of William F. Buckley Jr.'s ``Firing Line'' program. The Democratic candidates held a similar Buckley-sponsored debate in July.