Jockeying for position in the next race

2008: Future presidential contenders are making the most of their time at this week's convention.

Election 2004

The Republican Convention

August 31, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK -- Straight talk is Sen. Chuck Hagel's stock in trade. The Republican told Iowa delegates yesterday that this year's negative campaign was "debasing our country" -- and included President Bush in his criticism.

But the blunt-speaking Nebraskan lapsed into coded language when he spoke in more personal terms to the activists from a state whose lead-off caucuses are just over three years away.

Hagel praised "all you influential people in Iowa." He pointed to his "tremendous relationship" with Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the state's most popular Republican. He even mentioned -- "shameless politician that I am" -- the four Iowa towns where he has relatives.

Left out was the reason he was in this New York hotel ballroom on a steamy August morning in the first place: to advance his nascent campaign for the 2008 Republican nomination.

Long before this year's presidential contest is decided, the next one is already getting under way. For any Republican with 2008 ambitions, the streets of New York are a valuable first stop on the way to the White House.

"It's more a matter of them laying the foundation, meeting the people they need to meet to fund the race, impressing Republican activists," said Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster. "This will be the last opportunity before the presidential election in '08 to touch these people personally."

The Republican race, say party insiders, is wide open.

The president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, is seen by some as a possible contender. But he's highly allergic to talk about extending his family's White House dynasty and chose to skip the convention so he could monitor his state's recovery from Hurricane Charley.

Ordinarily, the sitting vice president would be the obvious choice. But Dick Cheney, whose history of heart disease could pose a serious impediment to a presidential run, has privately let fellow Republicans know that he has no plans to try.

The early favorite, according to party strategists with experience in presidential campaigns: Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

"I definitely think he will be the front-runner, whether Bush wins or loses," said Republican consultant Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign.

McCain's popularity with independent swing voters is one reason Bush and Sen. John Kerry have been eager to win his favor. But McCain isn't adored by the conservative activists who decide Republican nominations (he ran and lost in 2000).

In addition, McCain would turn 72 before the 2008 election, making him three years older than Ronald Reagan was when he became the oldest man to be elected president. McCain also has health problems; he had an operation several years ago for malignant melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer.

That could leave a host of newer conservative faces, many of them obscure outside their home states, plus better-known moderates whose politics may leave them outside the party's mainstream.

Another complicating factor that is blurring the 2008 picture: key states -- including those that would normally be the focus of more overt campaign activity by the party's future stars, Iowa and New Hampshire -- are also battlegrounds this year.

So would-be candidates "have been fairly cautious because our party is focused on re-electing the president in a tough race," said Gentry Collins, executive director of the Iowa Republican Party. "I don't think any of them want to get too far out in front. They're being more understated this time because most [party activists] aren't ready to talk about 2008 yet."

Coyly, covertly -- but with no shortage of the fire-in-the-belly ambition that a successful aspirant needs -- future Republican presidential contenders are making the most of their time at this week's convention.

It's an opportunity to woo party activists from states with early primaries and caucuses, connect with Wall Street's deep-pocketed donors at intimate meetings in the financial district and impress news media heavyweights, like the editors of Newsweek, the Washington Post and National Review, in private question-and-answer sessions.

And that's just Hagel's schedule.

A lucky few with higher ambitions get to strut their stuff from the podium at Madison Square Garden. McCain and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani fed red meat to the partisan crowd last night.

But speechmaking isn't the only way to polish an image that might set a candidate apart from the field.

Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist, never known for spellbinding oratory, hopes to be seen as a workhorse. "My style is low key, to work hard and do a good job, not to be a movie star, not to be a rock star," said the Senate Republican leader, who chaired the platform committee.

Frist, a physician, is also displaying his compassionate side. Tomorrow, he's expected to raise between $3 million and $4 million to help fight AIDS at a Rockefeller Center event (with country entertainers Brooks & Dunn) that is sponsored by World of Hope, a nonprofit organization he formed this year.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.