Frist wins poll at GOP meeting

Six Republican leaders compete in informal vote for possible successor to Bush

March 12, 2006|By JEFF ZELENY

MEMPHIS -- The race for the White House, an unusually long and crowded one, unofficially started here yesterday as a flock of Republicans began auditioning before influential party activists who will help choose the successor to President Bush.

With home-field advantage, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist placed first in an informal poll of 2008 presidential hopefuls at a Republican conference.

The two-term Tennessee senator received 526 first-place votes, or 36.9 percent, at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference's "straw poll" sponsored by Hotline, a political digest. Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney finished second with 14.4 percent, and Sen. George Allen of Virginia finished third, tied with President Bush, who cannot seek a third term.

The results were not a surprise and were unlikely to affect the evolving 2008 presidential field.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, among the most popular Republicans in national surveys, threw a wrench in the polling Friday night by asking delegates to vote for Bush as a show of support. He finished a distance fifth.

The president isn't leaving the Oval Office for nearly three more years, and the November congressional elections are a pressing priority. Yet the 2008 campaign marks the first race in a half-century in which neither party has an heir apparent, setting the stage for a wide-open contest tinged with uncertainty.

Six prospective candidates - four senators and two governors - traveled to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, introducing themselves to nearly 2,000 delegates from 37 states.

There were campaign signs, cocktail parties and country tunes, all accompanied by Republicans outfitted in red, white and blue. The mood of celebration stood in stark contrast to a string of controversies that have consumed the White House and the GOP-controlled Congress in recent months.

"It's a big boost for Republican spirits," said Allen. "You can say, `Oh, gosh, woe is me on this, that and the other,' but I think people come out of here recharged and reinvigorated."

But even as the inspection began for the fresh crop of Republican hopefuls, a heavy dose of introspection also was under way among party strategists and leaders here who worry whether the administration's challenges will become a burden in the midterm elections.

The conference, which featured a closed-door briefing by senior White House officials, unfolded against a backdrop of anxiety over the party's direction. Missteps in the Bush administration - such as the collapse of a deal to allow a Dubai company to oversee six U.S. ports - have prompted a rebellion among some Republicans in Congress.

"We're a party in fear right now. We're a party worried deeply about losing," said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of the few senators here not contemplating a run for the White House.

The potential candidates and other Republican speakers walked a delicate line, embracing some Bush policies even as they called for a revival of the party's core conservative values. Federal spending, illegal immigration and tax reform were the chief areas of concern aired during the weekend event at the Peabody Hotel.

McCain, perhaps the best-known member of the class of possible presidential hopefuls, offered the strongest embrace of Bush. Though he often has been at odds with the administration, McCain showcased a new loyalty as he attempted to appeal to Republican activists who never have been his biggest fan base. "We must," he said, "keep our presidential ambitions a distant second to standing with the president of the United States."

Other speakers were Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas.

Jeff Zeleny writes for the Chicago Tribune. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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