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Big Guns Ready, Bush Makes a Move

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

In a resounding show of force, Texas Gov. George W. Bush on Sunday launched a committee to explore a bid for the presidency, surrounded by an imposing array of Republican leaders representing almost all factions of his party.

Signaling the nuanced message he may offer as a candidate, Bush aggressively moved to establish his conservative credentials while stressing his commitment to expanding opportunity and broadening the GOP’s appeal.

“As we move into the 21st century,” he told a packed Austin news conference, “I want the party of Lincoln to be the party that makes sure no one gets left behind.”

Though Bush said he will not make a final decision about whether to run until after the Texas Legislature finishes its regular session in June, he left little doubt that he’s virtually certain to join the field later this year. “I went from warming to the task to getting pretty hot,” he said.

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Bush, the 52-year-old son of former President Bush, consistently leads in national surveys of early preferences among GOP voters for the party’s next presidential nominee. The formation of the 10-member exploratory committee underscored his position as the GOP front-runner by demonstrating a level of institutional support that dwarfs that amassed by any of his potential rivals in 2000.

With his words and the composition of his committee, Bush seemed to be positioning himself as a figure who can transcend the divisions in his party and sending a clear signal of independence from his father’s presidency.

The committee made a powerful statement about the potential breadth of Bush’s appeal. The group includes three women and three minorities; party elders such as former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour and former Secretary of State George P. Shultz; and rising stars such as Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. (the only African American Republican in Congress) and Kentucky Rep. Anne M. Northup.

Ideologically, the committee ranged from conservatives such as Michigan Gov. John Engler and Georgia Sen. Paul Coverdell to more moderate figures such as Washington Rep. Jennifer Dunn. Also on board were Reps. Henry Bonilla of Texas and Roy Blunt of Missouri, and Stanford University Provost Condoleezza Rice, who has been advising Bush on foreign policy.

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The announcement of the exploratory committee capped a wave of endorsements for Bush in the last few months.

At the news conference, Bush’s aides released a list showing he has been endorsed by a dozen Republican governors, 72 Republicans in the House, five GOP senators and delegations of state legislators and other local officials from nine states, including such pivotal early primary sites as Iowa, California and South Carolina. Also present Sunday were a coterie of top GOP fund-raisers who have already signed on as well.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Jill Hanson, the political director for Republican candidate Bob Dole in 1996. “From the Dole campaign, or the ’88 Bush campaign, [I know] getting these governors on board is like having a root canal for each one. And the legislators too.”

Just as intriguing as the breadth of the committee Bush announced is that none of the 10 played a major role in his father’s presidency; of the group, only Rice ever worked for the elder Bush, as a staffer at the National Security Council.

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“America, should I choose to run, will know that it’s George W. Bush who is going to be the president,” the governor said. “I’ll ask [my father’s] advice, you bet . . . but I’m going to have my own team.”

As if to underscore the point, Bush has begun to assemble a campaign team also dominated by figures who either had no connection to his father’s presidency or were younger aides, like Rice, in more midlevel roles.

If there is a risk for Bush in this avalanche of support, it is that it will raise expectations among voters and the media to a level that he may have trouble meeting. On Sunday, Bush brushed aside speculation that he might skip the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, but this enormous early buildup may leave him little room for stumbles in either of those states next year should he run.

“The critical test is how he performs in the early caucuses and early primary states. Can he win?” said Kyle McSlarrow, campaign manager for former Vice President Dan Quayle.

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Bush indicated again Sunday that he will not begin campaigning outside Texas or offering specific positions on most national issues until after the state legislative session concludes in June. But his remarks Sunday gave clear indications of how he may seek to position himself in the crowded GOP field, which could grow to 11 potential candidates Wednesday, when Elizabeth Hanford Dole is scheduled to announce her exploratory committee in Iowa.

Keenly aware of the suspicion with which many right-leaning activists view his family name, Bush went out of his way Sunday to identify with his party’s conservative wing. In his remarks, he praised core conservative principles, such as “limited government, low taxes, free and fair trade . . . personal responsibility [and] local control of our . . . schools.”

But he also emphatically reaffirmed his commitment to what he calls “compassionate conservatism,” a phrase that Quayle, among others, has declared a code phrase for abandoning conservative principles.

To a striking extent, Bush emphasized inclusion and outreach. Although he wants to ban abortion except in cases of rape, incest or threat to the life of the mother, Bush said the party “is big enough for good people to be able to disagree on the issue.” He denounced the “English only” movement.

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And when asked the most compelling reason for the country to change direction from the course President Clinton has set, Bush didn’t cite tax rates or the size of government but said: “My worry is that this nation best be careful, otherwise we are going to leave people behind.”


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