For the first time in years, the GOP has a truly open presidential field

November 28, 1997|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

MIAMI -- We tend to think of Republicans as an orderly lot. Usually you can look two or three years down the road and see that the party's presidential nomination inevitably will be won by Richard M. Nixon or Ronald Reagan or George Bush or Bob Dole. They were all in line for it; interlopers need not apply.

Running for 2000

This time around, however, we are being treated to something new and entirely different. There are perhaps 19 or 20 Republicans of some prominence interested in running in 2000 -- and none in anything that could remotely be called a commanding position.

On the contrary, if you listen to the strategists who swarmed all over the Doral golf resort during a GOP governors' conference here the other day, you would wonder if any of them is capable of winning.

There is an obvious vacuum at the top. The titular leader of the party, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, is still carrying such high negatives in opinion polls that it is hard to imagine him flourishing as a candidate for president.

Then there are the two candidates, former Vice President Dan Quayle and 1996 vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp, whose national ticket experience puts them in any first tier of candidates, at least nominally. Mr. Quayle has a strong base among culturally conservative Republicans who value his emphasis on family values, but there is still the nagging question about whether he can shake his image as a political lightweight. Mr. Kemp did nothing as Bob Dole's running mate to dissolve the doubts about him among the social conservatives who suspect the depth of his commitment to their concerns.

At this point, the first tier also would include Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, who consistently pops up at the top of opinion polls and who appears headed for an easy re-election next fall. Political professionals know those poll figures are inflated by respondents thinking of Mr. Bush's father, but he has shown impressive political skills of his own.

The field also will include at least three retread candidates from 1996 -- Gov. Pete Wilson of California, former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and magazine publisher Steve Forbes. Mr. Wilson's first campaign collapsed early for a variety of reasons, but he has shown himself to be a tenacious politician in the past. And Mr. Forbes has broadened his base by appealing to the religious right as well as those attracted to his ideas on taxation.

Curious case

The most curious case is that of Mr. Alexander. The former Bush cabinet secretary fell short by only a few thousand votes in the New Hampshire primary last time, and he has been aggressive (( this time in building a base in Iowa. But Mr. Alexander has yet to persuade many Republican insiders that he is as authentic a conservative as he claims to be.

There is also the prospect of several other Republican governors getting into the mix. John Engler of Michigan and Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin both have won reputations as effective governors who can reach beyond the Republican base to independents and Democrats. And there are others -- Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, George Pataki of New York and Jim Edgar of Illinois -- who might legitimately aspire to a place on the national ticket.

And who knows how many congressional Republicans have dreams-while-shaving about running for president. Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri and Rep. John Kasich of Ohio already have shown interest in unmistakable ways, and there are Republicans who believe the time might be ripe for such a new face as Fred Thompson of Tennessee or John McCain of Arizona.

None of these potential candidates is obliged to do anything now to further his ambitions other than, of course, get re-elected next November if their terms are expiring. But this time next year they will be under intense pressure to demonstrate their seriousness of purpose by raising large amounts of campaign money, as Mr. Alexander already has begun to do. This is the so-called ''first primary'' and the performance of the candidates will tell the political community, first, whether they want to compete seriously and, second, whether they are capable of doing so.

Field of dreams

For this field of Republicans, the opportunities can be rich for those who pass that first test. It is not a question of trying to RTC challenge some established front-runner with a legitimate claim on the party's loyalty. There is no sitting vice president who may seem entitled to the nomination. Any number can play.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 11/28/97

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