After a month on campaign trail, Bush lead is prodigious

His fund-raising prowess, huge lead in recent polls put him far ahead of plan

July 04, 1999|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Perhaps it was the money-raising record he'd just set that left his presidential rivals slack-jawed and demoralized. Or maybe it was the way his early success suddenly appears to be forcing the Clinton administration's hand on policy matters.

In any event, there was Gov. George W. Bush aggressively wooing hundreds of high-tech millionaires over quiche and sausage last week and letting his tongue -- and self-confidence -- get ahead of him.

"It's not my first trip to this incredible land known as Silicon Valley. It is my first trip as president of the United States," he said, quickly correcting himself. "Soon-to-be president of the United States."

His verbal slip, though harmless, points up the new reality of the Republican presidential contest: Bush is so far out front that the only person who can beat him is probably himself.

It has been less than a month since the Texan hit the road for the first time, an untested national candidate who'd never been elected to anything until 1994.

Blessed with a famous name, good looks and buckets of campaign cash, he'd won over a Republican establishment desperate to regain the White House. But he had yet to court a voter outside Texas. Even within his organization, there was uncertainty over just how well he'd perform.

50-point lead

Today, those initial questions have been answered. And Bush has, if anything, exceeded the inflated expectations of early last month.

His advantage in the polls over his nearest challenger has increased -- to 50 points or more in two nationwide surveys. Perhaps more important, he's left everyone else in the dust in the money chase.

A dozen Republican presidential candidates -- and Vice President Al Gore, for that matter -- now know that Bush has roughly $30 million in campaign money socked away, a huge cache that will make it that much more difficult for them to compete against him.

Last week, the 52-year-old Texan swept through California, evoking comparisons to Ronald Reagan, generating a buzz in Hollywood that drew such Democrats as Warren Beatty out to meet him and apparently prompting a response from the Clinton administration on matters of importance to the state's computer industry.

On the eve of Bush's visit to Silicon Valley, the administration agreed on a compromise with the Republican Congress that will limit lawsuits against businesses involving year 2000 computer problems. The White House also announced that restrictions on computer exports were being relaxed.

Administration officials denied that there was a connection between those actions and criticism of President Clinton and Gore by Bush. (Former Sen. Bill Bradley, the Democratic challenger to Gore, had also taken the industry's side.)

`We may be near the top'

With seven months to go until the first primary, Bush's candidacy could already be peaking, aides acknowledge privately.

"We may be near the top," says a senior adviser. "But that doesn't mean we're ready to plummet."

Karl Rove, the governor's chief political strategist, cautions that "we're only three weeks into a very long process. There are lots of ups and downs still ahead."

Next month, Bush will compete in a largely symbolic, but potentially risky, straw vote in Ames, Iowa. Several GOP rivals, facing effective elimination from the race if they don't do well, have been organizing there for months in hopes of upsetting the governor, who got a late start.

Meantime, the news media and his opponents in both parties continue to scrutinize every Bush utterance, ready to magnify any signs of weakness now that he's in the big leagues.

"Look, the day will come when the glow will wear off. He's going to take a fall. The issue is, when he stumbles, does he have sustainability? Can he pick himself up?" says California investment banker Robert Grady, a Republican White House veteran and Bush backer.

Bush has committed a series of foreign policy slips -- the latest: mistaking Slovakia for Slovenia -- forcing him to acknowledge he's got some learning to do. But he says he'd be ready by the time he assumed the office.

That has led to questions about his credibility, because Bush, at every campaign stop, pronounces himself prepared now to be president.

"I'll be ready," he assured the high-tech moguls. Apparently dissatisfied with how that sounded, he added: "I am ready."

With voters paying little attention at this stage, analysts say minor blunders are likely to be overlooked, especially those that involve topics, such as international affairs, of little concern to the public.

"If he's still making those mistakes six months from now, it will be a real problem, because then he'll start catching Dan Quayle disease," says John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Pomona, Calif.

His `irresponsible' days

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