When to say, 'I'm running for president'

These days, if you want to make it to the Oval Office, the fewer timesyou announce it, the better.

Former Vice President Dan Quayle has already told the world he's running for president - at least three times.

Sen. Bob Smith (R) of New Hampshire, the longest of long shots for the Republican nomination, last week became the first candidate to make a splashy formal announcement that he's running, too. And in a declaration that comes as news to no one, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander (R) has announced that he'll formally announce his candidacy on March 9.

Meanwhile, the folks at the top of the GOP polls - Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole - haven't announced a thing, not even an "exploratory committee" that usually precedes a formal declaration of candidacy.

This is the "I'm Running for President" announcement game, in which your chances of actually being elected to the Oval Office in 2000 are inversely proportional to the number of times you announce your candidacy.

For the multi-announcement crowd, there may be a downside to declaring one's intentions early and often.

"The more of these pseudo-announcements and proto-announcements and crypto-announcements that you make, the more the real announcement just seems to get lost in the noise," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

It has reached the point where an announcement that you're not running is more newsworthy than one announcing you are.

Perils of the waiting game

But for those at the top of the heap, waiting too long to announce anything can also have its risks. Until now, analysts say, Governor Bush could afford to stand mute on the question of whether he'll actually try to follow in his father's footsteps.

But by waiting too long, he could frustrate key people in early caucus and primary states, and begin to lose some support. That's already happening, and thus what Bush is really doing is running for president under the radar, sending out videos to potential donors and dropping statements like the one last week in which he said he's "warming" to the idea of running.

Bush has high (and positive) name recognition and an instant national fund-raising network, key assets that most other candidates lack, forcing them into the game early. Bush's big poll numbers have proved that silence is golden. The question for him - and for Elizabeth Dole - is at what point does staying on the edges becomes a negative.

Bush's waiting game may have cost him some organizational support in Iowa, a key testing-ground state. There, former GOP state chair Steve Grubbs opted earlier this month to back millionaire publisher Steve Forbes - another as-yet-unannounced candidate, but one who projects no doubt that he'll run.

"I have no complaints with Governor Bush - he's a great man and a great governor," says Mr. Grubbs, noting that Bush called him in December to congratulate him on the birth of his son. "It was as much [that] Steve Forbes kept calling me during that time period, indicating that he wanted me to be with their campaign."

Still, Bush may be getting a wee bit concerned that he can't play it coy for too much longer. His campaign-style videos, sent around the country to past contributors, show Bush's inaugural address and election-night victory speech. His aides downplayed the significance of the mailing.

Steering clear of policy

So long as Bush doesn't launch any formal bid for the presidency, he can steer clear of demands that he articulate a vision for the office. The same holds true for Mrs. Dole, who, in her recent high-profile speech in New Hampshire, portrayed herself in broad-brush terms as a "Reagan Republican." Bush's mantra has been "compassionate conservatism," a concept he'll certainly have to flesh out a bit if he really does run.

On the Democratic side, where the field is much smaller, there are actually two fully declared candidates, but it's so little known the information might as well be classified.

Vice President Al Gore skipped the exploratory phase - he's already had six years in the White House to explore, after all - and went right to an official launch to his candidacy on Dec. 31, probably the least newsy day of the year. No fanfare, no balloons, just some aides filing papers so his organization can raise money.

Former Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey has also gone through his exploratory period and is now an official candidate, but again, hasn't made much of a splash. According to his spokeswoman, Sarah Howard, Mr. Bradley will do a real "announcement" in the spring.

Perhaps the most telegraphed candidacy of this cycle is Mr. Alexander's. When he dropped out of the race in 1996, he really never stopped running. And he's giving the press plenty of advance warning about the coming formal announcement of his candidacy.

The press advisory reads almost like a wedding announcement, with journalists as the guests. A block of rooms has been reserved at the Loews Vanderbilt Plaza Hotel in Nashville, Tenn., and a dinner (the rehearsal dinner?) for journalists will be held with members of Alexander's exploratory committee.

Has Alexander selected his china pattern yet? an aide is asked. "I don't think he's chosen it yet," says staffer Valerie Walston. "But he's looking at crystal."

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