Bush's re-election campaign: experience in reserve On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

December 06, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Washington -- PRESIDENT BUSH, in finally announcing the leadership of his 1992 re-election campaign team, no doubt was responding to nervousness within the Republican Party over his decline in the polls and, to a lesser extent, the two challenges he faces from the right.

The declared candidacy of Lousiana state legislator David Duke and the expected one of television and newspaper political commentator Patrick Buchanan clearly contributed to advancing the timetable Bush had preferred -- waiting until January.

But it would be a mistake to conclude from the change that the Bush reelection campaign has cause for panic. The party apparatus is simply too well honed, the president's ability to raise money too imposing and the array of experienced campaign talent too deep for any such concern at this point.

It is true that the continued presence of the combustible John Sununu as White House chief of staff was a roadblock to implementing the campaign leadership, because many GOP pros balked at working for or even with him. As gatekeeper to the Oval Office, the chief of staff is the traffic cop for the president's time and travel schedule and by definition a key figure in campaign planning. But with Sununu replaced by Sam Skinner, a seasoned political operative from Illinois on good terms with the new campaign leadership team of Robert Mosbacher, Robert Teeter, Fred Malek and Charles Black, that roadblock has been removed.

Mosbacher, Teeter, Malek and Black all have been poised to move into action for many months, held back mainly by Bush's own desire to put off overt politics as long as possible. As they marked time, the Republican National Committee was busy doing all the grunt work of determining when and how the president's name needed to be filed in the convention delegate-selecting processes in the various states.

At the same time, fundraising was going forward for what is unequivocally called the Bush-Quayle re-election campaign, with the vice president solidly endorsed by Bush for a second term. More than $5 million has already been raised in four large fund-raising dinners, and earlier this week Bush campaign agents filed a request with the Federal Election Commission for $2.6 million in matching funds under the federal campaign finance subsidy laws. Neither Duke nor Buchanan made any filing and, by contrast, the largest request from a Democrat, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, amounted to only $1.1 million.

Raising money has never been a problem for a Republican president, and it won't be for this one, no matter what the polls show. And Bush's ability to assemble an army of experienced campaign hands is equally impressive. Lee Atwater, his 1988 campaign manager, died earlier this year and James A. Baker, his campaign chairman, is now largely removed from partisan politics as secretary of state, though always available for counseling. But most of the other principal players in his 1988 victory are poised to take up key campaign responsibilities.

The Republicans for several election cycles now have mastered a process of maintaining a sort of standby political army of veteran political professionals during the off-season that can be called up at the approach of the next presidential campaign. Known in political circles as "warehousing," it consists of placing experienced campaign hands in jobs on party national and state committees, on congressional staffs, with Republican law, lobbying and political consulting firms, available for "recruitment" campaign time.

During the 1988 campaign, Atwater boasted that he had in key posts at least two dozen political operatives who had three or four presidential campaigns under their belts. And with the only primary opposition expected to come from Duke and Buchanan, a pair of candidates outside the current mainstream of the party, virtually all of this warehoused talent will be at the disposal of the Bush-Quayle campaign.

Until Duke and Buchanan entered the picture, it appeared that the Bush campaign would have the luxury of waiting late into the winter or even the spring to gear up for what is still expected to be a Bush coronation at the Republican National Convention in Houston in August. But their presence, and the president's slide the polls as the economy remains stagnant, means these old pros will have to report for work earlier than they probably counted on. Clearly, however, there is plenty of time for putting together the kind of slick campaign operation the Republicans have become known for at least since the Nixon years.

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