Bush's new fraternity brothers
The front runner could have no better protectors than the
By Margaret Carlson
December 6, 1999
Web posted at: 1:27 p.m. EST (1827 GMT)
I was at ground zero of the de facto stop McCain movement
recently, as a guest speaker at the Republican Governors
Association at La Costa, a luxurious California resort with clay
tennis courts, milk baths and valets dressed like footmen.
In exchange for being on the program, I got more face time than
usual with the Governors, including late-night margaritas and
brandy. While I was fascinated by their discussion about taxing
sales on the Internet, what I was really looking for was any
crack in their pre-emptive, granite-hard support for their
colleague, Governor George W. Bush. Lately, he had given off a
slight whiff of Dan Quayle, and his first debate was imminent.
Senator John McCain was showing surprising strength. And surely
there must be some Oval Office envy, given that one of their own
had left them in the presidential dust. Stare in the mirror now,
and at best there's a Vice President staring back. I was certain
there would be some hurt feelings when Bush dissed the meeting
entirely, even though he was only 15 minutes away in San Diego
I wheedled the teeniest glimmer of criticism out of North Dakota
Governor Ed Schafer, the incoming chair of the association, who
allowed as how he thought it would be a nice touch if the
Governor were to make a cameo appearance, given that the group
was voting a pre-primary endorsement of him, the first in its
36-year history. But when Bush sent word--"Love ya, but can't get
there"--Schafer was all forgiveness. "It wouldn't have been a good
use of a presidential candidate's time. He's already got us."
Boy, does he. There's no establishment like the Republican
Establishment. These guys don't complain; they don't wobble; they
won't entertain the notion that Bush is slighter than many others
in their exclusive club, like Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson, who
considered running but didn't when he concluded that "Bush was
more famous, had more money and was better looking." Bush has
advantages the rest of them don't--lineage, family crest and
primogeniture--not to mention that modern tool of war, a massive
treasury. He also wooed them, as if he were back at his
fraternity house. And he still does: he arm squeezes and bear
hugs; he calls; he has them to the mansion. He gives each one a
nickname. What does it matter if he isn't the wonkiest among
them? These are can-do guys who admire a winner and want more
than anything to regain the throne lost to an illegitimate king
in 1992. They aren't concerned that their own loyal subjects may
not like being told what to do. They're in love.
Unlike Dole in '96, Bush invites them to come along for the ride.
He's a constant buddy movie. He took Montana Governor Marc
Racicot on his plane to New Hampshire for last Thursday's debate
there. In exchange, Bush has been the beneficiary of the
Governors' outsize money and political operations. Pennsylvania
Governor Tom Ridge says Bush is the first candidate "to absorb
the Governors' organizations so completely into his own."
If the Governors squabble among themselves, it's over who will
throw up the best fire wall, should McCain wound Bush in New
Hampshire or South Carolina. "I'm solid asbestos," Michigan
Governor John Engler crows. "I'm not conceding anything to McCain
in New Hampshire, but when he gets to Michigan on Feb. 22, he
runs into a state where I've got an organization that has won for
me three times, where the legislature is overwhelmingly for Bush,
where 65% of county chairmen are already lined up. On Veteran's
Day, in bellwether Macomb County, 250 leaders came out from every
city and township to sign up with Bush." Engler has so wrapped up
the players that McCain did not name a state chair until
mid-November, and he's a rookie at that.
One week after Michigan, Virginia's Governor Jim Gilmore is ready
with his bright red ladder truck and wailing siren as well.
"George and Laura campaigned here so that the G.O.P. got control
of the legislature, and I intend to return the favor. Virginia
will be a giant step in his winning march," he says. To that end,
he moved Virginia's primary up to Feb. 29. As for Governor George
Pataki's New York, which votes on March 7: fuhgeddaboutit.
Despite improvements in the state's unconscionable ballot access
requirements, Pataki has kept it sufficiently difficult that it
would take a miracle for McCain to qualify in enough districts to
have a shot. And Bush is even competing in McCain's Arizona, with
Governor Jane Hull's help, which is forcing the Senator to spend
scarce resources there.
So what do the Governors get out of Bush for their fealty?
Attention, as he triangulates against the less popular
Republicans in Congress; money, as he promises to send more to
the states; and the possibility that one of them will be his Vice
President. At the Iowa straw poll in August, Bush squealed,
"Tommy T., you're the best," to the Wisconsin Governor on the
short list. In June, Bush ran along the Susquehanna River with
Pennsylvania's Ridge during a two-day swing through that state
and joked that he "would make a great jogging mate." His campaign
has registered Bush-Ridge on the Internet, but also Bush-Engler,
Bush-Pataki and Bush-Whitman.
So life for Bush remains a lot like rush time at the DKE house.
At a time of peace and good times, he's not worried about the
talent contest. He's already won Mr. Congeniality.
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Cover Date: December 13, 1999