$50,000 a Day, Seven Days a Week, for a Year

January 12, 1995|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington.-- In one year Iowa -- dark, brooding, inscrutable Iowa -- will be the center of the universe as Republican presidential candidates wander the tundra pursuing caucus voters. But the winnowing of candidates has already begun.

In 1991 President Bush's chimerical stature after Desert Storm dissuaded several plausible Democrats from seeking their party's nomination in 1992. President Clinton's stature is not the reason Dick Cheney and Bill Bennett have opted out of the race for the 1996 Republican nomination.

Mr. Bennett already has the most important, demanding and interesting job he could have, raising children. He chooses not to run because of the time he would have to be away from his two sons and because of the time he would have to spend with other people, asking for money.

Mr. Cheney will not run in part because his temperament precludes manic single-mindedness. Before deciding not to run, he was doing well wooing corporate America -- as well as anyone has done since John Connally in 1980. Connally, the favorite of the boardrooms, raised $11 million and won one delegate.

Bob Dole, Phil Gramm and Lamar Alexander are the three certain candidates. Dan Quayle and Jack Kemp may be deterred by, among other things, this calculation: If, as many political professionals say, a candidateneeds to have $20 million by Iowa, a candidate starting to raise money now, as Messrs. Quayle and Kemp essentially would be, would have to raise more than

$50,000 a day, seven days a week, for a year.

Perhaps Colin Powell could raise that sum quickly, or make do with less. However, there is no evidence that he wants to do what politicians do (solicit contributions, talk about abortion and farm-price supports, wander the tundra), or that the party will hand the nomination to him on a silver salver.

Mr. Powell is intelligent and sophisticated and might make a dandy president. However, he is a potentially potent candidate, not because of what he has done but because of what he is: The country would like a chance to vote for a black gentleman. Still, you can't steal first base and you can't order a nomination from room service. And the next time America elects an ''independent'' president -- one truly independent of organized parties -- will be the first time in two centuries.

Given Democratic weakness in the South and Mountain West, a Democrat cannot win the necessary 270 electoral votes without California's 54. Democrats have never had a Californian on their national ticket. In the 12 elections since 1948 (when California's Gov. Earl Warren was Dewey's running mate), Republicans have had Californians (Nixon and Reagan) on their ticket eight times. Democrats have no plausible Californian for the 1996 ticket. Republicans have California's governor, Pete Wilson, but he has inhibitions.

Americans generally choose governors as presidents. Only three presidents have been elected while serving on Capitol Hill (Senator Kennedy in 1960, Senator Harding in 1920, Congressman Garfield in 1881). But given the rigors of today's nominating process, governors have a disability: They have jobs. It is hard to fulfill obligations in Sacramento or Boston or Trenton while speaking from a pay phone at a McDonald's in Ottumwa, Iowa.

Mr. Wilson, governor of more than one-ninth of America's population, has an ambitious agenda that precludes even presidential talk for six months, and July would be a late start. But that agenda, spelled out in his State of the State speech this week -- a 15 percent cut in personal and corporate income taxes over three years, welfare reform, merit pay and no tenure for teachers -- will stir presidential talk because it so suits the party's conservative nominating electorate.

The governor is a prodigious fund-raiser. However, having run three statewide races in six years -- four in 10 years, spending $70 million -- he must be reluctant to reapproach contributors who last year opened wide their wallets in order to keep California safe from a Democratic governor. Were Mr. Wilson elected president, the lieutenant governor, a Democrat, would move up.

Being otherwise unemployed is an advantage for a candidate. Jimmy Carter was in 1975-76, Ronald Reagan was in 1979-80. In 1987-88 George Bush was vice president, a form of unemployment. Mr. Alexander, a full-time candidate, has surrounded himself with serious thinking and fund-raising talent. 1994 Mr. Gramm had a good year in the Senate and a great year organizing his campaign. Senator Dole is coming off a year of extraordinary legislative virtuosity, and by challenging President Clinton's Bosnia policy, and his tendency to subordinate U.S. policy to U.N. politics, Mr. Dole is establishing pre-eminence on the most presidential matter, foreign policy.

These three could be the field a year from now when Iowa will be approximately the third quarter, not the kickoff, of the Republican's big game that is now under way.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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