Bush as GOP's life raft - at least for now

With party adrift, Republicans rally early around the governor.

Contrary to appearances, the race for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination isn't over.

True, top GOP politicians from around the nation have rallied around Texas Gov. George W. Bush, son of the former president, to an almost overwhelming degree.

This groundswell of support, in part orchestrated by Governor Bush's aides, comes as no surprise, say political analysts. After the impeachment debacle in Washington and devastating losses in last November's congressional elections, the party has appeared rudderless.

"The elected officials are all nervous and running for the biggest raft they can find before they drown," says Don Devine, a longtime Republican hand who worked for Presidents Reagan and Bush. "They don't know what to do."

Mr. Devine, who is supporting another likely GOP candidate, publisher Steve Forbes, adds that Governor Bush "seems the most handy thing around that's floating."

Bush's supporters characterize their man as more than just an available piece of plastic, bobbing on the surface of rough political seas.

To them, he's an attractive and successful businessman - former oilman and part-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team - who has demonstrated political prowess in twice winning the governorship of the nation's second-largest state.

And he's from outside the Beltway, way outside (though not unfamiliar with Washington's ways, having been a key adviser during his father's term as president).

But there are lots of reasons why Bush won't just waltz to the nomination: There's a posse of GOP heavyweights - some announced candidates, some not yet - out there sharpening the knives for Bush.

They may not openly go after him on his personal past, one that he admits involved heavy drinking. But they're likely to be critical that he's untested on the national scene. On top of all that, the public doesn't know him, and he hasn't revealed yet whether he's got "the vision thing."

At a press conference Tuesday, in which he announced formation of a presidential exploratory committee, Bush asserted, "I do have a compelling reason to consider running for president. For my family and every family in America, I want the 21st century to be prosperous. And I don't want anybody being left behind."

His father's shadow

Already, the phrase "compassionate conservatism" has become Bush's motto, duly attacked by some GOP candidates as "weasel words" and vaguely reminiscent of the "kinder and gentler America" theme his father sounded.

On that score, Bush will have to emerge from his father's shadow and show that he's in touch with everyday Americans in a way that President Bush failed to do.

In sheer vote-getting ability, the younger Bush has already shown skill in attracting Hispanic, African-American, and female voters, at least in Texas.

And Bush scores well in national polls. If the election were held today, Bush would beat Vice President Al Gore 54 percent to 43 percent, according to the latest CNN/USA Today poll. Name recognition has much to do with his strong showing; former Red Cross chief Elizabeth Dole also beats the vice president in polls.

But national political observers are adamant that the race for the GOP nomination will be a long haul, one in which divisions within the party will be hashed out and publicly aired. One sign of Bush's soft support came when Mrs. Dole resigned from the Red Cross, hinting widely she'd run for president.

"The day after she announced, they did a poll in New Hampshire and she took half his support away," says Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University in Washington.

Dole's possible candidacy, he adds, is what's pushing Bush to announce three months earlier than he had planned to. "Dole and he come out of the same constituency," he says. "He's worried that she draws from him."

Historically, Republicans don't nominate a candidate on the first try. The last time that happened was in 1952, with Dwight Eisenhower. In the Democratic world, the fields are littered with seemingly invincible candidates who stumbled and dropped out. See Gary Hart and Ed Muskie.

National scrutiny

In Texas, political observers say Bush's noncombative style and skill at handling the press thus far show that he could play well on the national scene. Even so, performing well in front of intense scrutiny could prove to be the test of Bush's career.

"It's not illogical that the national media would be more pushy," says Sam Kinch, a political consultant in Austin and former editor of a Texas political newsletter.

But that doesn't mean local reporters are obsequious, Mr. Kinch adds, saying that "all the papers have delved into Bush's past. They have sent reporters to where ever Andover Academy is, and they've sent reporters to Yale and talked to his drinking buddies. Nothing seems to stick."

Some reporters question the manner in which Bush conducted his business, relying on family friends to back his oil company and on a city-built stadium to increase the value of his baseball team.

"As long as Bush didn't steal money, it's not going to hurt him," says David Prindle, political scientist at the University of Texas in Austin.

As for questions about his personal past, Bush has handled those questions well, Dr. Prindle says. "Whenever [President] Clinton was confronted with his past, he would do two things: explain it away and attack the source. But Bush has said, 'I was a bad boy, and now I'm a good man.' "

At least some local observers can see a clear path to the nomination for Bush, who has skillfully maneuvered what is dubbed a "yellow rose garden strategy" of staying in Texas and receiving the blessings of Republican luminaries from around the country. In the last week alone, 12 of 31 Republican governors have endorsed Bush, and more are expected.

"He's hit the ground running," says George Christian, former press secretary in the administration of President Johnson, another Texas-bred president. "Unless he gets hit by a tornado, I don't see what can head him off."

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