WASHINGTON -- Not content with seeing Texas Gov. George W. Bush riding high as the front-runner in most polls on the public's preference for the 2000 Republican presidential nominee, about 50 present and former GOP congressmen have joined an effort to draft him.
The development has given Mr. Bush a nice, fuzzy feeling. His spokesman says he is "honored that fellow Republican elected officials from diverse parts of the country have recognized that he is a principled conservative who has the ability to erase the gender gap and attract record numbers of minority voters."
But Mr. Bush would be wise not to start writing his acceptance speech just yet. Presidential nomination drafts have been few and far between, except for George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt for his fourth term, and possibly one or two others. The most recent draft deserving the name probably was of Gov. Adlai E. Stevenson II of Illinois in 1952, when he repeatedly stated he would not run but finally relented.
Stevenson had run in no primaries and had consistently insisted all he wanted was a second term as governor. But wide dissatisfaction with Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, whose victory over President Harry S. Truman in the New Hampshire primary helped persuade Truman not to seek another term, brought a search for an alternative. Even so, Stevenson was not nominated until the third ballot.
Four years earlier, both major parties had set their sights on the hero of World War II, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. But Eisenhower wasn't interested, and draft efforts fizzled. In 1952, however, the Republicans resumed their draft entreaties and Ike, finally declaring himself a Republican, agreed to have his name entered. He campaigned in no primaries but easily won. He was nominated on the first ballot, but only after a bitter credentials fight with Sen. Robert A. Taft's forces. If this was a draft, the door had not been thrown completely open.
Early draft efforts also were mounted for Ronald Reagan in 1968, chiefly within the California delegation that made him its favorite-son candidate, but they got nowhere. They resumed in 1976 but soon turned into an active campaign in which Mr. Reagan threw a scare into incumbent President Gerald R. Ford but fell short at the GOP convention. By 1980, Mr. Reagan, then a full-fledged candidate from scratch, was nominated and elected.
A principal reason presidential drafts have become almost impossible in the past 20 years or so has been the proliferation of presidential primaries. The much greater power of voters in more and more states to have their say on primary day forces even very popular public figures to face them.
Perhaps the most recent figure who might have been the recipient of a genuine draft was Gen. Colin Powell when he flirted with the possibility of running in 1996 for the Republican nomination. But when he said no, his flat statement snuffed out that particular fire.
So if Mr. Bush wants to be president, he'll no doubt have to go out and fight for it, with the field of opponents for 2000 already building.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.
Pub Date: 2/17/99