GOP activist Bauer seeks White House

Ex-Reagan aide opposes abortion, Kosovo action, wants U.S. moral revival

April 22, 1999|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Conservative activist Gary L. Bauer, who rose from glorified go-fer to a top job in the Reagan White House, formally launched an against-the-odds try for the presidency yesterday with a call for moral revival in America.

Discarding his prepared announcement speech, Bauer seized on the killings at a school in Littleton, Colo., as fresh evidence that the nation's virtues are in free-fall.

"This country can be better than it is today, and I intend to make it better," said Bauer, 52, who drew a deafening reception from hundreds of students and former neighbors at his old high school in Newport, Ky.

Bauer said Hollywood producers, "militant secularism in America's judicial system" and civil libertarians are to blame for a moral decline that is at the root of tragedies like the Colorado killings.

"You and I know that despite a Dow Jones industrial average over 10,000, a growing economy and despite all of the things to our credit, you and I know there is something wrong in America," he said.

In an effort to broaden his appeal to economic conservatives, Bauer is promoting a 16 percent flat-tax plan, a cut in Social Security payroll taxes and government-sponsored vouchers for private schools. He has also broken with free-traders in his party to oppose normalized trade relations with China and is against U.S. military involvement in Kosovo.

Like other Republican contenders, Bauer portrays himself as the ideological heir to Ronald Reagan, whom he served for eight years, first as a lowly campaign aide who did little more than fetch coffee for others, later as a White House staff member and undersecretary of education, and finally as chief domestic policy adviser.

The cherubic conservative has long been a burr under the saddle of his party's establishment, especially over abortion. He has aggressively fought those who want to blur the party's anti-abortion image, a fight he intends to pursue in the presidential campaign.

"I think America is better than 1.5 million abortions a year, and the next president can end [legalized abortion] if he makes the right Supreme Court nominations," he says. He favors a ban on abortion and wants Congress to pass legislation making a fetus a person under the law.

Bauer accuses other Republican contenders, including front-running Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Elizabeth Hanford Dole, of "backtracking" on the party's commitment to ending abortion.

Bush and Dole, noting that most Americans would not favor an abortion ban, believe it would be better for their party to submerge the issue in next year's election.

A successful grass-roots fund-raiser, Bauer is on leave from his political organization, the Family Research Council, which has an annual budget of $14 million and a staff of 120.

His campaign has collected about $1.8 million in contributions, but at considerable expense. Its most recent financial report showed a net cash balance less than $100,000.

"This is the hardest thing I've ever done," Bauer says, rejecting the notion that he's running merely to grab a platform for his views. "If I wanted to make a point, I'd take out an ad."

However, many of his longtime allies dismiss him as a serious threat to win the Republican nomination.

Paul Weyrich, a leading conservative theorizer, has termed the notion of a Bauer victory "a dubious proposition." Pat Robertson, head of the Christian Coalition, has flatly said: "I just don't think he's got a chance."

Even radio evangelist James Dobson, whose backing has been instrumental to Bauer's emergence as a force in conservative circles, has yet to endorse his protege's candidacy.

Asked in an interview whether he has received endorsements from any of his former White House colleagues, Bauer could think of none.

"I can check and call you back with some names," he said.

Despite the quixotic aura of his effort, Bauer could well influence the course of the 2000 contest.

He is competing against several others -- including former Vice President Dan Quayle, magazine publisher Steve Forbes, commentator Patrick J. Buchanan and New Hampshire Sen. Robert C. Smith -- to become the conservative alternative to such establishment contenders as Bush and Dole.

His candidacy could further splinter the vote of social conservatives -- who cast about one-third of Republican primary ballots -- and make it more difficult for any conservative to become the nominee.

Similarly, Bauer could be a force in the campaign's first organizing test, a nonbinding popularity contest in August among Iowa Republicans that has a history of creating trouble for front-runners. His Iowa campaign is being managed by Marlys Popma, a highly sought-after organizer, who insists that her state's voters are hungry for Bauer's unapologetic conservatism.

"We're not delusional. We know that he's an underdog candidate," says Popma, who expects Bauer to make a strong showing in this summer's vote.

In 1987, Vice President George Bush finished third in the same straw poll (won by Robertson, with backing from religious and social conservatives), foreshadowing a third-place result for Bush in the 1988 Iowa caucuses that nearly cost him the party's nomination.

A similar early setback could prove disastrous to his son, George W. Bush, whose popularity, at least at the outset, appears to rest largely on the belief that his nomination is inevitable.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 4/22/99

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