Official announcements full of hype, few surprises


WASHINGTON -- Twice in the last few days, Republicans who had telegraphed months ago that they would run for president "officially" announced at big rallies that they were candidates. First, it was Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, then former Tennessee Gov. and Bush Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander. For all the attendant hoopla and television coverage, what was the big deal?

Actually, Gramm had filed a written "Statement of Candidacy" with the Federal Election Commission last Nov. 14, and Alexander had done the same Jan. 19. At the time, they didn't actually utter the words "I declare my candidacy" or some variation, but as far as the FEC was concerned, they were in the 1996 race.

So, by the same yardstick, are "unofficially" announced candidates Sens. Bob Dole and Arlen Specter and former Maryland senatorial candidate Alan Keyes. Beyond that, news commentator Pat Buchanan has filed an "exploratory committee" with the commission, meaning he is taking a look at running as he revs up for the race.

The political swamis who put much time and effort into planning these formal send-offs insist that such exercises are important in introducing candidates to the voters, although in these cases both Gramm and Alexander have been in national politics for years. On top of that, most voters couldn't care less about presidential politics at this stage.

Tactically, a more significant reason for the "official" announcement is that it puts to rest any lingering doubts in the minds of supportive political consultants and contributors who might otherwise get nervous and jump to another candidate. Fund-raising, especially in this cycle in which the 1996 primaries and caucuses will be bunched up in a brief period from mid-February through March, is a very competitive business.

Although politicians almost never hold an announcement event to declare that they are not running, it has happened, and then it's really news. Perhaps the most celebrated example occurred in 1968 when Gov. Nelson Rockefeller waltzed into an overflow crowd of cheering supporters at the New York Hilton and jolted them by saying he wasn't going to challenge Richard Nixon for the Republican nomination.

The statement was a particular slap in the face for the man who thought he had successfully lured Rockefeller into the race -- Gov. Spiro Agnew of Maryland. Agnew had called local newsmen into his office to watch the expected declaration of candidacy on television and was prepared to gloat. Instead he was humiliated. He reacted by switching shortly afterward to Nixon, who eventually rewarded him by making him his running mate.

Rockefeller, incidentally, changed his mind a month later, after President Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not seek re-election. Seeing the possibility of picking up Democratic votes, Rockefeller jumped in with another "official" announcement, this time positive. But by this time Nixon had a Republican convention delegate lead that proved to be insurmountable.

It was not, in fact, the first time Rockefeller had marched up the hill and backed down. He had done the same thing in late 1959 after it was widely expected that he would challenge Nixon in 1960.

Another nationally prominent New York governor, Mario Cuomo, in 1992 was expected to announce his presidential candidacy, at the 11th hour for filing for the primary in New Hampshire. He even had a plane ready to fly him there. Instead, he held a news conference in Albany and declared that pressing state budget business prevented him from running. Again the air went out of the balloon.

There was no such suspense or surprise in the Gramm and Alexander "official" announcements, nor is there likely to be any when Dole shows up for his well-orchestrated "decision" next month.

Unlike Rockefeller in 1968 and Cuomo in 1992, all three have been aggressively beating the political bushes for many months. In politics as in life, it's not news when dog bites man -- but there usually are some folks around who will show up to see it happen.

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