Winnowing of Republican field begins

Competitors wilting early in face of Bush's strength in polls and fund raising

July 14, 1999|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- More aftershocks from the George W. Bush fund-raising earthquake rippled across the Republican landscape yesterday, toppling the long-shot candidacy of Rep. John R. Kasich of Ohio.

The House Budget Committee chairman will formally abandon the race today and become the first former rival to endorse the Republican front-runner, campaign officials said. Bush is expected to attend Kasich's announcement at a Washington news conference before heading to Baltimore to raise more campaign cash, officials added.

Conservative Sen. Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire, another struggling presidential challenger who failed to make headway against Bush, quit the party yesterday. He is expected to continue his dark-horse effort as an independent, probably under the aegis of the U.S. Taxpayers Party.

The Republican field is thinning -- with the first primary still more than half a year away -- largely as a result of Bush's prodigious bankroll. This week, his campaign is expected to recalibrate the scope of his record haul: to about $37 million, up from an initial estimate of $36.25 million, for the first six months of this year.

"What you are seeing out there is a coalescing of the party behind Bush," said a Kasich adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity. He said rival candidates are finding it virtually impossible to raise money in the face of the Texas governor's impressive lead in the money chase and early polls.

"Out on the trail, what you see is an evaporation of support for anyone other than Bush," he added. "You're seeing a phenomenon here that, quite frankly, I can't recall happening before."

But other Republicans are not surprised by the shrinking of a presidential pack that peaked at a baker's dozen last month, when Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch launched a late long-shot bid.

"The Republican field has been artificially large and it will probably round out at seven or eight candidates by the end of the year," said Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole's 1996 campaign.

Reed predicted that there would be more casualties after next month's straw poll in Ames, Iowa. Former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee has indicated that he would effectively end his candidacy if he doesn't finish in the top three in that poll. And a poor showing by Elizabeth Hanford Dole might make it difficult for her to continue as well.

Bush's impressive lead in the nomination contest has allowed him to pursue a general election strategy from the start of his candidacy. He is making a point of pursuing African-American and Hispanic voters in hopes of erasing an image of intolerance that has crippled the party's efforts to win swing voters.

On his visit to Maryland, Bush plans to tour a summer camp for inner-city youth in East Baltimore before heading to a fund-raising dinner this evening at the Hyatt Regency Hotel at the Inner Harbor.

Bush's efforts to position himself -- and his party -- closer to the mainstream are helping propel him to an early advantage over Vice President Al Gore, but they are also generating discontent on the Republican right.

Smith, who outlined his reasons for bolting the party yesterday, criticized unnamed Republican leaders for "sweeping under the rug" the party's opposition to abortion and gun control and other stands unpopular with many swing voters.

Two other conservative candidates, Patrick J. Buchanan and Gary Bauer, have indicated they are considering leaving the party or leading a revolt at the national convention next year.

"I think there are some real problems for Bush brewing on the right," said Greg Mueller, an adviser to Steve Forbes' campaign and a former Buchanan aide.

But Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition and now a Bush adviser, disagreed with those who see a significant number of conservatives defecting.

"I think there are some conservatives who think that you have to lose to prove that you're principled," said Reed.

Bush, he said, will be "an anti-tax, pro-term limits, pro-Second Amendment, pro-life nominee," and the party's platform will reflect those views. "As long as that happens, there won't be significant defections."

Pub Date: 7/14/99

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