A QUESTION from the audience to the...


A QUESTION from the audience to the speaker at an April lunch meeting of the Executives Association of Baltimore: "Who are the likely Republican candidates for president in 1996?"

Caught off guard I mumbled the names of a few suspects: Dan Quayle, Phil Gramm, Pete DuPont, even Ross Perot. I don't think I mentioned Jack Kemp and Bob Dole, or if I did, it was dismissively.

So imagine my surprise a few days later to read this in U.S. News & World Report: "Republican strategists are feeling cheerier about 1996. . . Bob Dole has become the co-front-runner with Jack Kemp."

I had been caught off guard because this is awfully early to be playing the presidential sweepstakes game. I mean, Bill Clinton has only been in office three months.

The Great Mentioner, who validates presidential candidacies by feeding journalists names, usually doesn't appear on the Washington scene until about two or maybe three years before the actual campaign begins. But speculation about 1996 has started -- and with a vengeance.

The Washington Times recently Mentioned 15 Republicans who could be the nominee: "Quayle, Gramm, DuPont, Kemp, Dole, William Bennett, Dick Cheney, Bob Dornan, Pat Buchanan, William Weld, Carroll Campbell, John Engler, Tommy Thompson, Pete Wilson and Lamar Alexander."

Dornan, a congressman from California, had his own list, which added Pat Robertson. A "Republican analyst" told a California newspaper that "the leader of the party is Rush Limbaugh." The Hotline, an electronic tip sheet for political journalists, Mentioned former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean in a recent "White House '96" essay.

So that's 18, not counting Ollie North. CBS says if he wins the Virginia Senate race next year, he could be a presidential contender.

I'll make it a round 20 by Mentioning George Bush. Bush said last month that he's through with politics, but we'll see. Other one-term presidents have tried to redeem themselves with a comeback. (One did: Grover Cleveland was thrown out of the White House in 1888, regained it in 1892 by beating the man who had beat him.)

Bush would be 72 years old in 1996, but so what? So-called co-front-runner Dole will be 73. That's one reason I don't take his candidacy seriously. The other reason is that he has done so poorly every time he ran for president before.

In 1980 he got almost no votes in his bid for the presidential nomination. On Super Tuesday of 1988 Bush swamped him 57 percent to 24 percent in 20 states. When he's not in Kansas, Dole is no wizard.

Of course, in '88 he did do better than Kemp. Given a choice of only those two, voters probably would pick old Dole. Why? Call me an impudent snob if you like, but I just don't think America is ready for a phys ed major in the White House.

B6 Monday: Democratic presidential candidates in 1996

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