Gov. Bush Skips GOP Presidential Event
HOUSTON (AllPolitics, March 28) -- Texas conservatives saw a parade of Republican presidential hopefuls on Saturday but a popular hometown face was missing.
Texas Gov. George Bush, who consistently tops polls of potential GOP candidates, is studiously avoiding 2000 forums -- even on his home turf. His absence also highlighted the ideological divisions between the moderate and conservative elements of the party.
"He makes it a practice to avoid events that might tend to look beyond 1998 and toward the year 2000," said Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes.
His advisers pressed organizers to scrap a straw poll at Houston's Harris County Republican Party convention as anything short of an overwhelming victory would have embarrassed the no-show native son.
Some conservatives were disappointed by his absence. Bush was in Austin campaigning for candidates and in San Antonio attending the NCAA basketball tournament semifinals. He is facing re-election in November.
"I would have loved to see him come down for this, and I don't know why he didn't," said John Fawbush, a Houston money manager. "It has true conservatives puzzled."
Steve Forbes attends
With Bush absent, a thin field of potential White House hopefuls was left in Houston. Millionaire publisher Steve Forbes used the event to try to convince religious conservatives that his platform goes beyond a flat tax.
Orie Casas, a Houston homemaker, came to the convention somewhat skeptical of Forbes. "You know those social conservative issues?" she said, as the audience rose to cheer the failed 1996 candidate. "I heard them in his speech."
But the speakers' list included mostly longtime social conservatives, such as Washington activist Gary Bauer, who barely concealed his presidential ambition.
Bauer asked 400 delegates at a prayer breakfast to seek divine guidance as he decides whether or not to run.
And he vowed to "fill the vacuum" in the Republican Party by standing up "for our values -- for lower taxes, smaller government, family values and especially the sanctity of life."
The crowd roared. Bauer tapped into a growing sentiment among grass-roots conservatives that Republican leaders court their votes in November but abandon their values in office.
Bauer's aggressive campaign against abortion has GOP leaders squirming. In Washington, elected Republicans worry that uncompromising conservative activists like Bauer will scare off moderate voters in crucial November congressional races.
The split threatens to tear apart the coalition that elected Republican presidents in the 1980s and seized control of Congress in 1994. The warning signs were posted coast to coast in recent days:
- A coalition of conservative leaders met in Washington to consider endorsing a single candidate.
- Influential broadcaster James Dobson of Colorado Springs, Colo., threatened to bolt the party and fight moderate Republicans.
- Bickering among factions helped defeat a conservative GOP congressional candidate in California.
The varying views of Houston delegates typified the problem.
"We've never been afraid of the so-called secular wing of the Republican Party. Why are they afraid of us?" said Rodney Spence, a Tomball, Texas, machinist, who said he is a social conservative.
Tom Dill, a Houston laboratory technician, said he would like to vote for Bauer. "But is he a winnable candidate?" Dill asked. "We have to be practical."
Many delegates looked to Sen. John Ashcroft as a candidate who could possibly unite moderate and conservative Republicans.
Ashcroft, a junior senator from Missouri, is trusted by anti-abortion activists. But his real-world record as governor may make him more attractive to mainstream Republicans.
Senior GOP officials say Ashcroft could break out of the second tier of presidential prospects if he raises enough money and builds a veteran political team this year. In his speech, Ashcroft condemned President Clinton regarding the Monica Lewinsky inquiry, a subject addressed by nearly every speaker.
"It is time to either tell the truth ... or leave," Ashcroft said.
Former Vice President Dan Quayle accused the president of "outrageous behavior," which he said was "sad and dangerous."
Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, part of a legion of governors with presidential dreams, also was on the schedule.
While he remains publicly focused on a November re-election bid, Bush's advisers are quietly preparing for the possibility of a presidential bid.
Bush's biggest obstacle to a run for president might be the skepticism of social conservatives who never warmed to Bush's father. Forbes, who is facing the same skepticism, was not unhappy about Bush's absence.
"That's a decision he has to make -- and defend," the millionaire publisher said, barely concealing a smile.