A Bush is star of GOP governors

November 25, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

NEW ORLEANS -- At the Republican Governors Conference here the other day, Gov. John Engler of Michigan was asked by a reporter whether he thought the strong re-election of Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and the election of his brother, Jeb, in Florida marked "the new generation" taking over leadership of the Republican Party.

Mr. Engler noticeably blanched. "We've got a lot of people in that new generation," he finally said, meaning himself among others who also easily won re-election. The Bush brothers, he said, "don't do it all by themselves. There's a tendency, perhaps more focused now because they're better known, [to spotlight them]. They're the only governors whose father was president, so that gives them a little more attention."

Reagan's rise

That no doubt is true, but it is also true that not since a freshman governor from California named Ronald Reagan breezed into NTC similar governors' conference 31 years ago, in 1967, has such potential presidential star quality been seen among Republican ranks. Other governors and former governors have reached for the GOP presidential nomination, but none has achieved it since Mr. Reagan.

Mr. Reagan's memorable entry onto the national political stage came at a gathering of governors in the far West, where shortly after his victory over Democratic Gov. Pat Brown in 1966 he strode in wearing cowboy garb and a broad, friendly grin that captured all the media attention.

He was not yet being touted as presidential material in 1967, and still had to live down the widespread impression that as a Hollywood movie product he had a long way to go to be taken seriously as a politician. But once he demonstrated he was not overwhelmed in Sacramento, the presidential speculation began in earnest.

George W. Bush arrived here the other day as the clear front-runner for the 2000 GOP nomination. The press attention showered on him, and his younger brother Jeb basically playing straight man to him in a good-humored press conference, seemed to irk some of his colleagues who have impressive records of their own as governors and have presidential or vice-presidential ambitions themselves.

Re-elected Republican governors like Mr. Engler, Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania and George Pataki of New York, all mentioned as possibilities for the 2000 national ticket, have been notably successful by adopting pragmatic approaches to problems in their states. So it is not surprising that they might be put off by the spotlighting of the Bush brothers when they feel that they themselves should share the acclaim.

No anointing of George W.

Accordingly, there was no rush among them here to anoint George Bush as their leader or their horse in the approaching 2000 presidential sweepstakes. As for a national agenda looking toward 2000 and considering their own success at the state level, Mr. Engler said, "We want to continue doing what's working and do more of it, and I think we will. Having an agenda of focusing on real problems of real families in our respective states served many of us very, very well."

It's possible that the Republican governors collectively will be able to elbow their way into a larger role in national party leadership now that the dominant voice of Newt Gingrich will be absent from it. But probably the most constructive contribution the governors can make is in continuing to demonstrate what Republican ideas work at the state level.

Mr. Thompson particularly has done that over the past 12 years in Wisconsin, but he doesn't have the star quality that "George W." seems to have.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 11/25/98

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