Republicans race to the starting line ON THE POLITICAL SCENE


November 06, 1993|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON -- Taking their cue from President Clinton, Republicans won't stop thinking about tomorrow.

"Tomorrow" -- the next presidential election -- is still three years away, but the maneuvering for the Republican nomination has shifted into surprisingly high gear.

Well before this week's elections gave Republican spirits a big lift, at least a dozen GOP presidential aspirants were already positioning themselves for possible 1996 runs.

It's a level of early activity high enough to shock even hardened veterans of the political game.

Steve Roberts, a longtime national party committeeman from Iowa, observed that the presidential race had gotten off to its earliest start ever in his state -- and that was last spring, after a string of GOP hopefuls had started trooping through the cornfields.

Gramm was first

The distinction of being the first White House-hungry man on the campaign trail goes to Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, who showed up in New Hampshire last winter, exactly 11 days after Mr. Clinton took office.

Just the other week, South Carolina Gov. Carroll Campbell became the latest '96 hopeful to begin politicking in New Hampshire, whose primary election is a scant 28 months away.

When Mr. Campbell became head of the National Governors' Association in August, he insisted he wouldn't be visiting there, another way of saying that his work for the association would come before his presidential aspirations.

When he showed up in Manchester, the state's largest city, he was hardly coy. "I'm not here for the vacation or the leaves," he told reporters.

Some Republicans believe the early jockeying has created its own dynamic, one that is prompting potential candidates to move more quickly than they'd like, lest they risk getting left behind.

"Anybody's that's going to play is going to have to start soon," said a well-placed GOP strategist.

"Everybody is starting a lot earlier than they thought they'd have to."

National party leaders have tried to quash any talk about presidential politics, out of fear that it will distract Republicans from their immediate goal: next year's midterm elections, when the party hopes to gain seats in Congress and in statehouses around the country.

And yet, even Haley Barbour, the national Republican chairman, is plotting his '96 moves.

The GOP chief recently sent letters to a number of cities around the country informing them that the Republicans want to hold their national convention in August of that year.

That move caught Democrats by surprise, since, for as long as anyone can remember, the party out of power has held its convention in July.

That allows a decent interval of three weeks or more to pass before the president's party holds its convention.

Mr. Barbour says his timing is designed to avoid having the Republican convention overshadowed by the summer Olympics in Atlanta July 19 to Aug. 4 that year.

But if the move comes off, it could also have an impact on the size of the viewing audience for the Democratic convention and could shorten the fall campaign.

Cheney, Quayle

In recent weeks a number of prominent Republicans have signaled their intention to be players in '96 -- including former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and former Vice President Dan Quayle.

And just last week, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III addressed a Republican fund-raising dinner in Baltimore, prompting renewed speculation about his desire to be the party's next nominee.

"He definitely is not planning on being invisible," says a top adviser, adding that Mr. Baker will campaign "heavily" for Republican Senate and gubernatorial candidates next year.

He'll have plenty of company. Most, if not all, of the '96 candidates will be active campaigners for fellow Republicans next year, hoping to snatch up IOUs and get better known in the process.

It doesn't hurt that six of the eight "Super Tuesday" presidential primary states have U.S. Senate races next year.

With an unusually large number of Republicans already testing the presidential waters, the party appears assured of its most wide-open nomination chase since Jimmy Carter was president in the 1970s.

Among those seen as dark horse GOP contenders are several governors, including Mr. Campbell, Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson, Michigan's John Engler and Massachusetts' William Weld.

Buchanan mentioned

Others include 1992 presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan, who has returned to his former life as a political commentator; former Education Secretary William Bennett, currently active as a proponent of school choice; former Labor Secretary Lynn Martin, who has made appearances at party functions in New Hampshire and elsewhere; and conservative Rep. Bob Dornan of California, who visited New Hampshire earlier this year.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, on the short list of vice-presidential possibilities during the 1970s and 1980s, has begun speaking out sharply against the Clinton foreign policy and spent two days last week in New Hampshire.

Perot as a Republican?

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