Among GOP field, few prime-time candidates

June 16, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- You may have noticed that Sen. Bob Smith, a New Hampshire Republican, is running for president, which might suggest a complication in the GOP presidential primary here next February.

After all, when Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa sought the Democratic nomination a few years ago, his rivals essentially conceded his home state to him.

That isn't happening with Mr. Smith. Instead, he is being seen by both the press and political community as just one of those candidates cluttering up the Republican field with no "serious" chance of winning the nomination.

Others who fit that description include Rep. John Kasich of Ohio, Gary Bauer, head of the Family Research Council, and Alan Keyes, a radio talk-show host from Maryland. And there are several others who, whatever they may have done in the past, are clear also-rans so far this time around -- commentator Pat Buchanan, Lamar Alexander, magazine publisher Steve Forbes, and former Vice President Dan Quayle.

The only candidates to show any substantial support in polls have been Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and Elizabeth Dole, former cabinet secretary and president of the American Red Cross, and, in a few surveys, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

The fact that a home-state senator is among the also-rans focuses attention on what criteria the press and politicians use to decide who is a "serious candidate" and who can be largely ignored.

Statewide appeal

One standard that might seem obvious would be the resume of the candidate. Serving as a senator or governor has been a generally accepted credential. At the least, it shows the ability to win a statewide election.

But Bob Smith isn't even being viewed as a realistic possibility here. New Hampshire Republicans may like him but, the polls show, not for president. In his years in the Senate, he hasn't built the kind of reputation that persuades his party he could win a presidential election.

Mr. Quayle obviously has the most impressive resume, but the hard judgment of political professionals is that he cannot shake his reputation as a light weight from his years as vice president.

Mr. Alexander, a former governor, Cabinet member, university president and successful businessman, looks good on paper, too. But he has been campaigning almost continuously for six years without garnering much support.

Beyond an impressive resume, candidates need to have access to money -- either from personal wealth or, more typically, huge fund-raising efforts. Thus, although yet to light any fires in the electorate, Mr. Forbes has the potential to be at least an influence in the campaign because of the money he is willing to spend on television commercials.

Political fortunes

None of the judgments of who's "serious" is chiseled in stone, of course. For example, Mr. Alexander might convince the politicians and press he is a genuine contender with a strong showing in one of the straw votes and some polls.

But the consensus of the professionals is that Republicans are far more interested in choosing a winner than making a point this time. And that argues for a centrist candidate who offers strength in the opinion polls, not necessarily ideological purity.

That means the candidates on the far right are running uphill. They may continue to appear at the cattle shows and they may be allowed to clutter up the primary season debates. But they have a distance to go to convince anyone they are serious possibilities for the nomination.

Any American has the right to run for president. But there is no right to be taken seriously.

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

Pub Date: 6/16/99

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