Money wins over ideas in battle for GOP nomination

October 22, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- In abandoning her presidential candidacy this week, Elizabeth Dole spoke a simple truth when she said "the bottom line is money." She lacked the necessary financial backing so it was "futile to continue."

While money was a key problem, she did run second or third in most polls and drew large crowds. But the treasuries of two rivals for the GOP presidential nomination -- Texas Gov. George W. Bush and magazine publisher Steve Forbes -- were too formidable.

Mr. Bush raised such an incredible amount -- about $50 million in the first half of this year and another $20 million in the third quarter. Mr. Forbes dipped so deeply into his seemingly bottomless pockets that Mrs. Dole was swamped.

With only $850,000 on hand, she correctly set the money odds against her at 80-to-1, even after having held more than 70 fund-raisers and having more than 30 more scheduled for this year.

The campaign finance laws, which the Senate refused to reform only the night before Mrs. Dole's announcement, were intended to create a relatively level playing field for presidential candidates, by offering the carrot of a federal campaign subsidy to them in return for limits on campaign contributions and spending.

But Mr. Bush as a result of an unprecedented fund-raising machine, and Mr. Forbes out of his willingness to spend his own millions, were able to turn down the subsidy, and hence the money limits that go with it.

Tallying the victims

Their money and their freedom to spend it profusely have now claimed a fifth Republican victim, Mrs. Dole, following Ohio Rep. John Kasich, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, former Vice President Dan Quayle and New Hampshire Sen. Robert Smith to the sidelines.

The difference between Mrs. Dole and these others, however, is that their campaigns were conspicuously dying in the water, whereas she was staying afloat by two visible evidences of popularity -- polls and crowd appeal.

But neither of these two yardsticks can compare these days with the power of money. It is sometimes argued that the task of raising campaign funds is a fair measurement of public support -- the willingness of voters to shell out for the candidates of their choice. Mr. Bush has met the test with a vengeance, but Mr. Forbes hasn't.

With no experience in politics and without ever having held a public office, only his personal bankroll has bought him entry and staying power.

Mrs. Dole may not be the last casualty of this imbalance in campaign funds. Except for Mr. Forbes, the surviving GOP candidates -- Sens. John McCain and Orrin Hatch, Gary Bauer, Alan Keyes and, until he jumps to the Reform Party, Pat Buchanan -- are all in the same money bind.

Of these, Mr. McCain stands the best chance of providing serious opposition to front-runner Bush, but not until the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 1, having all but opted out of the Jan. 24 Iowa caucuses.

Boost for McCain

As for Mrs. Dole, she declined to endorse anyone else immediately. Her candidacy's end should give more visibility to Mr. McCain. But Mr. Bush, currently wearing a more moderate hat, is likely to pick up some of the Dole support, too.

Mrs. Dole claimed her candidacy has "paved the way for the woman who will be the first woman president" by bringing many new voters into politics, and declared gamely that it is "more important to raise issues than to raise campaign funds." That, at least, is the way it should be. But with the Bush money juggernaut and Mr. Forbes' fat wallet, that isn't the way it is today, unfortunately, for Mrs. Dole -- and quite possibly the remaining contenders as well.

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

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