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Candidate Bush Is Hotter Than Texas Asphalt in July

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Robert Jubelirer has never seen George W. Bush shake a hand, kiss a baby or try to rouse an audience of party faithful drowsing plateward after a rubber chicken dinner. He met the Texas governor just once--a decade ago.

Yet Jubelirer, the president pro tem of the Pennsylvania Senate, has not only endorsed Bush for president in 2000, but he has also corralled 22 of his 29 Republican Senate colleagues to sign on with him.

“I am sick and tired of losing,” Jubelirer says flatly. “And I think George Bush is the only prospective candidate I see out there who can appeal to all segments of Pennsylvania. . . . Frankly, I want our party to begin being defined by these Republican governors, not by the Washington people, who I don’t think have a clue what is happening in the heartland.”

In both his decision and his logic, Jubelirer has plenty of company. Around the country, GOP elected officials are surging toward Bush as fast as day-traders jumping onto a hot new stock. It is an unprecedented stampede for a candidate who has never sought national office, made more remarkable by the fact that most of these elected officials, like Jubelirer, have never seen Bush in action. Many have never met him.

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Yet they are propelled toward him not only by the belief that Bush represents the party’s best chance of winning back the White House but also the conviction that his “compassionate conservatism” can redefine the party’s image in a way that strengthens their own electoral prospects in 2000.

“The goal for Republicans is to change the perception of the party . . . to find a leader who can restore the prestige of the presidency and find someone who can win,” insists Maryland Sen. Chris McCabe, who headed an endorsement blitz for Bush in his state.

All these Republicans backing Bush will get their first sense of whether they bet on the right horse late this week, when he makes his eagerly awaited initial campaign trips to Iowa and New Hampshire. “We all realize this all hinges on what happens in June--when Mom lets him out of the house to play,” says Mississippi state GOP Chairman Mike Retzer, who helped lead the Bush endorsement drive in his state.

Endorsements Help Fund-Raising

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In the atomized, media-driven world of modern presidential politics, the value of endorsements remains a matter of debate. Few political operatives believe such support sways large numbers of votes anymore. But well-placed backing--particularly from governors, who tend to dominate political life in their states--can provide presidential candidates access to effective organizations and, perhaps most important, help in raising money.

For Bush, the virtually daily drumbeat of endorsements brings another benefit: reinforcing a sense of inevitability about his nomination. For the other candidates, that ephemeral perception can become a tangible obstacle. “It dries up money and it freezes some other very good people from helping other candidates,” notes a senior advisor to one of Bush’s rivals.

As much by necessity as design, the other candidates are trying to turn Bush’s advantage against him. Taking a page from Democrat Gary Hart, who nearly swiped his party’s presidential nomination from endorsement-laden Walter F. Mondale in 1984, Bush rivals portray his endorsements as evidence he is the tool of a tired “party establishment.”

Rank-and-file Republicans “are starting to resent this,” says Brian Kennedy, the campaign manager for Lamar Alexander. “They feel as though the Washington establishment is attempting to impose upon them the nominee.”

Support Is Wide, Aide Says

But Karen Hughes, Bush’s communications director, says the sheer breadth of the endorsements undermines that charge. “It’s a lot of new young diverse leadership that spans the spectrum of the party, as well as some respected elders,” she says.

Indeed, it’s difficult to overstate the scale of the rush toward Bush. Consider just one nine-day period late last month.

The endorsements from Jubelirer and his Pennsylvania Senate colleagues were announced May 20. Four days later came support from a raft of New York officials, led by Gov. George Pataki (so far, 18 of the 31 GOP governors have publicly embraced Bush’s candidacy).

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The next day, Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond, from the critical early primary state of South Carolina, became the 10th Republican U.S. senator to back Bush. The day after that 114 of the 222 House Republicans lined up for him. And two days later, three-fourths of the GOP state legislators in West Virginia joined the throng.

Bush’s endorsements span his party’s ideological spectrum. He’s received backing from large majorities of GOP state legislators in moderate states such as Maine and Massachusetts and the conservative redoubts of Alabama and South Carolina. California Assemblyman Bruce Thompson of Temecula, a staunch conservative, led the endorsement drive for Bush in Sacramento. But the effort also attracted moderate Assembly members such as Anthony Pescetti of Sacramento and Charlene Zettle of Poway.

The honorary “co-chairs” of Bush’s California campaign reflect a similar breadth of support. Announced Friday, they include Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), Senate Republican Leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga and Ruben Barrales, a former San Mateo county supervisor and last year’s GOP nominee for state controller.

By either contemporary or historical yardsticks, Bush’s roster of supporters is head-turning. Among his rivals in the 2000 race, only Alexander has the support of even two governors; John McCain of Arizona, a sitting senator, has endorsements from just two of his Senate colleagues. Even Bush’s father, when vice president, did not match the Texas governor’s feat of attracting endorsements from a majority of GOP governors and House members in the year before he won the 1988 presidential nomination.

Several distinct factors appear to explain the rush to Bush. Key among them:

* Electability: As Jubelirer’s reasoning suggests, two distinct electoral calculations are driving much of Bush’s support. One is the same consideration that helped Bill Clinton win the Democratic nomination in 1992: a hunger to reclaim the White House that is dampening demands for ideological purity. Like Clinton then, Bush is benefiting from the sense that he has the best chance of broadening his party’s appeal to swing voters.

Reinforcing that conclusion for many Bush backers is the belief that his relatively centrist agenda will define a more “inclusive” image for the party than the GOP congressional leadership has set. In that way, they believe Bush can help their own efforts to court swing voters. “I just don’t want the national ticket dragging us down,” says Jubelirer.

* Unity: After the GOP’s bruising 1996 primary battle, which saw Steve Forbes bloody eventual nominee Bob Dole with a withering advertising campaign, many Republican officials appear eager to avoid a repeat. One way to do that, they believe, is by coalescing early behind Bush. GOP moderates also like the fact that Bush can appeal to conservatives, and vice versa. “People on both elements of the spectrum see elements they find very appealing,” says conservative Rep. Patrick Toomey (R-Pa.).

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* The governors’ connection: In many states, Bush’s unmatched support among his fellow governors has been key to opening doors with other elected officials. In Michigan, for instance, Rep. Fred Upton says he’s supporting Bush largely on the word of Republican Gov. John Engler. “I feel very comfortable with the fact that [Engler] feels Bush is head and shoulders above the rest,” Upton says.

And on Friday, Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin traveled to neighboring Iowa to both announce his support for Bush and open the Bush campaign headquarters there.

It is a measure of Bush’s advantage that his rivals quietly consider it a silver lining that he won’t be able to secure gubernatorial endorsements in each of the four states that host the key early GOP contests next year. The reason: Democrats control the governorships in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and California.


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