Enlisting political veterans

April 24, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Gov. George W. Bush's decision to name half a dozen old Republican political hands from Washington as advisers to his Texas-based presidential campaign should quiet grumbling within the party that he was sailing into unfamiliar political waters by relying too heavily on his home-grown team.

The six -- former national party chairman Haley Barbour, longtime conservative consultant and 1996 Bob Dole adviser; Charlie Black, 1992 deputy manager for President George Bush's reelection campaign; Mary Matalin, former presidential speech writer; former GOP congressmen Vin Weber and Bill Paxson; and former national party and congressional aide Ed Gillespie -- all are veterans of the presidential wars.

The appointment of such folks seemed to some critics to be a long time coming, but it is in keeping with standard Republican practice. One of the great strengths of the Republican Party in presidential politics is the cadre of political professionals it has built up over the years, and the manner in which it has warehoused this talent after elections.

Routinely, the GOP keeps a mental card file on the best names in the campaign business and where they can be found, or are purposely placed between elections -- in consultant firms, at the Republican National Committee, in GOP congressional offices and at law and lobbying firms.

Every four years, this talent is called upon to provide many of the leading political strategists, media consultants, pollsters and speechwriters for the Republican presidential candidates. And after the party nominee has been chosen, many of those who have toiled for losers volunteer or are drafted to assist the winner of the nomination in the drive for the White House.

Perhaps the best recent example of this phenomenon occurred in 1980 when James A. Baker, who had run the failed presidential campaign of his friend George Bush, joined the campaign of the winner of the GOP nomination, Ronald Reagan, as a senior adviser. In 1996, Mr. Black, who ran Sen. Phil Gramm's losing campaign, missed hardly a beat in signing on thereafter with Mr. Dole, an old friend.

Although personal relations between Governor Bush and Sen. John McCain have been notably cool since their bitter primary fight, the Bush campaign has already brought in some key McCain campaign people in advisory roles. One is Mr. Weber, who is to head up a strategy committee dealing with the Gore campaign.

Others being consulted, according to Mr. Black, are Rick Davis, the McCain campaign manager during the primaries, and Ken Duberstein, a White House chief of staff in the Reagan administration. More could come aboard if a meeting between Mr. Bush and Mr. McCain early next month produces a warmer atmosphere than now exists between the two men.

Mr. Bush's press secretary, Mindy Tucker, says the six veteran political operatives just named have been consulting with the Bush campaign all along, and talk of the campaign's isolation perhaps was a result of it being in Austin rather than Washington.

Although much was made of the decision of Vice President Al Gore's campaign to relocate in Nashville, running campaigns outside of Washington has become more commonplace since Jimmy Carter ran his from Plains, Ga., in 1976, Michael Dukakis ran his from Boston in 1984 and Bill Clinton ran his from Little Rock in 1992.

The warehousing of political talent has never been as comprehensive in the Democratic Party as it has been in the Republican. For one thing, the flame for victory does not seem to have burned as brightly among Democrats, whose intraparty fights often have left deeper scars in fairly recent years.

In 1980, when liberal Democrats rallied around Sen. Ted Kennedy in an effort to oust President Carter and failed, by and large the losers went home and sat on their hands as Mr. Reagan and the Republicans grabbed the presidency. There have been exceptions, but Democratic workers have tended over the years to restrict their efforts to the candidate of their choice rather than close ranks behind the nomination winner.

Among the Democrats this year, there has been no reaching out toward Bill Bradley operatives by the Gore campaign and none have switched, a measure of the ill feelings generated by that bitter competition on both sides.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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