Where all those millions might get George W. Bush

July 02, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- At the halfway mark of the pre-election-year fund-raising competition for the next presidential nominations, it's customary for the poorer candidates to dismiss the success of those building the largest campaign treasuries as not assuring anything about the eventual outcome.

This year is no exception, even in the face of an astonishing, record money-raising performance by Texas Gov. George W. Bush on the Republican side and a near-record for a Democrat by Vice President Al Gore.

Final figures for the first six months of 1999 are not due at the Federal Election Commission until July 15, but reports from the Bush and Gore campaigns put them far ahead of all rivals. Bush's expected $36 million tops by a mile the nearly $20 million President Clinton and Mr. Gore raised in the first six months of 1995, and Mr. Gore's campaign puts its figure so far this year at about $18.5 million.

Their opponents like to argue that a candidate doesn't have to have the most money to be nominated, only enough to be competitive, so that his or her voice is not completely obliterated in the era of campaigning by television commercial.

The early also-rans in the money chase focus on 2000's relatively less expensive delegate-selecting contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, likely to be held no later than early February. They operate on the premise that if they can spring a surprise in the balloting in one or both of these states, the contribution floodgates will open to them, and they also will become the beneficiaries of massive free press and television publicity.

Some, like former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, practically live in these two states in the hope of generating the kind of grass-roots support that can overcome the great financial advantage of the flush front-runners.

He and other Republican hopefuls suggest that Mr. Bush, who has never run for national office and has not yet spelled out his views on many major national and foreign-policy issues, will lose his early luster and will not seem quite so inevitable for the GOP nomination by the time the voting for delegates starts in the various states.

Supporters of former Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley, Mr. Gore's only opponent, in the same vein suggest that Mr. Gore as a vice president has been under Mr. Clinton's shadow and as he steps out on his own will not look so formidable either. Already the fact that he trails Mr. Bush by a sizable margin in most polls is seized upon as evidence of his vulnerability. Also, Mr. Bradley, in raising more than $11 million so far, has been no slouch in that department.

But efforts to minimize the practical significance of leading the competition for campaign money overlook one notable fact: Since enactment of the post-Watergate campaign finance laws in 1976, only one candidate who raised the most money in the year prior to the election failed to be nominated.

That candidate was another one-time Texas governor, John B. Connally, who according to the Federal Election Commission raised about $8.1 million in the year before the 1980 presidential election, but lost the GOP nomination to Ronald Reagan, who took in $6.5 million in 1979. (Mr. Connally wound up with one convention delegate for all his money).

Since 1980, the nomination in both major parties has gone every time to the biggest pre-election-year fund-raiser: Republicans Reagan in 1984, the senior George Bush in 1988 and 1992 and Bob Dole in 1996; Democrats Walter Mondale in 1984, Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996.

Another cold fact magnifies the importance of early money. Next year, after the Iowa and New Hampshire contests, gobs of it will be needed to compete in two megastates, California and New York, which have moved their primaries to the first Tuesday in March and where buying television time in a host of expensive media markets is deemed essential for success.

Money, to be sure, is not a sure-fire guarantee of nomination, as Texas Sen. Phil Gramm learned in his pursuit of the 1996 Republican prize. In 1995, at a fund-raising dinner as he tried to amass $20 million before the start of the election year, he proclaimed that "the best friend you can have in politics is ready money." But in the end that friend could not pull him through.

However, as another underfunded and failed candidate, Democrat Morris Udall, liked to say, "I've seen rich and I've seen poor, and rich is better."

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

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