Never too soon to speculate about GOP nominee in '96


WASHINGTON -- In case you haven't noticed, it's only 1,457 days to the next presidential election.

So obviously it's none too soon to start speculating on the identity of the Republican nominee, while assuming Bill Clinton makes it through his first term and seeks a second.

The list of potential GOP candidates, depending on whose crystal ball you gaze into, already has reached at least a dozen eager-beavers who will feel free to explore their chances for 1996.

At the top by most reckonings is Jack Kemp, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who has managed through the four years of the Bush administration to be mostly loyal while still providing the framework of a Kemp agenda for the future.

The old pro quarterback spent much of the Bush administration gathering splinters on the back bench of the Cabinet, occasionally second-guessing the coach and being ignored by him.

Then came the Los Angeles riots and Kemp, as the only member of the team who seemed to have any ideas about what to do about them, was handed a helmet and thrust into the game -- for the benefit of the cameras, anyway.

Kemp's centerpiece concept of urban enterprise zones finally won Bush's approval but went down with the latest Bush veto of the tax package that included the zones. The chances are that Clinton will be pushing them himself, as one who is deft at appropriating other people's good ideas.

As a die-hard supply-sider, Kemp will be able to offer himself as the real heir to the Reagan Revolution for all those Republicans who saw Bush as a usurper. The downside for him is that the last time he ran for president, in 1988, he suffered from logorrhea -- running off at the mouth -- and folded early.

Next to Kemp in the early handicapping is Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, whose introduction to the national audience at the GOP convention in Houston qualified him as a hypnotist without a swinging pocket watch. But he has a large campaign treasure chest and boundless ambition that could overcome his seeming inability to smile.

Then there is Vice President Dan Quayle, who won big brownie points for energetic campaigning in some of the more forgettable corners of the U.S.A. this fall, and for showing Bush how to strike sparks in a debate, while ducking comparisons with Jack Kennedy.

Quayle should continue for a while anyway to be a big drawing card on the fund-raising circuit. But the vice presidency has always been his most promising ticket to higher office and without it, and with continued doubts about his brainpower, his prospects have dimmed. But he may continue to be a voice for the party's extreme right wing, including the religious right.

Pat Robertson, who has been mobilizing what he calls the Christian Coalition, could try for the nomination again but many Republicans are saying now it's more likely he will be looking for another horse to ride, rather than make the race himself after his loss in 1988.

The man many handicappers figured would be a top prospect after a second Bush term, former everything James Baker, is now widely rated as a non-starter, simply because he doesn't have a patron or the image of a politician who would trudge through the New Hampshire snows to fight for the nomination.

A somewhat better bet from the Bush team could be Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, a former member of the House Republican leadership and Ford White House chief of staff who would have substantial congressional support. But Cheney may be too low-key for the rough-and-tumble of presidential politics.

One who can't be ruled out on those grounds is commentator Pat Buchanan, whose hard-knuckle challenge to Bush first exposed his weaknesses. Buchanan is headed back to what he calls journalism, while not ruling out another run.

Also being mentioned are Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas; William Bennett, the acid-tongued former anti-drug czar; Secretary of Education and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander; Gov. William Weld of Massachusetts; and former Gov. Pete DuPont of Delaware, another 1988 also-ran.

Between now and 1995, when the 1996 hopefuls will be declaring themselves in or out, other names certainly will surface to lead the Republican Party out of the political wilderness. And you thought the baseball season was too long.

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