SAN DIEGO -- Tonight is Bob Dole's big night at the GOP convention. But a select group of Republicans in San Diego is already thinking about tomorrow.
They are the party's rising stars, its next generation of presidential candidates. And unless Dole wins in November, their moment has arrived.
The Republican Class of 2000 -- the Millennial Class -- would include some veterans of past campaigns, certainly Patrick J. Buchanan and quite likely Jack Kemp, now given a second chance at presidential politics.
But also competing next time could be some fresh new faces, most of which have been very much in evidence at this week's convention.
They include New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who is 49; Texas Gov. George W. Bush, 49; California Attorney General Dan Lungren, 49; Rep. John R. Kasich of Ohio, 44; Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, 53; Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, 54; Sen. John McCain of Arizona, 59; and former South Carolina Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr., 56.
All must tread a tricky path as they work the convention floor, blitz the delegations and hit the TV anchor booths. They want to make a splash with the activists and the press assembled in San Diego, without appearing to put their ambitions above Dole's and ahead of the push for victory this fall.
"At any given time, the '00 hopefuls, when they are not busily praying that Dole loses in '96, are making the circuit here, which is sort of inch-by-inch, hotel to hotel," said James Pinkerton, a Bush White House aide.
An alternate delegate from Vermont, for instance, who may wonder why all these out-of-state politicians are delivering pep talks to his delegation, will learn the answer two or three years from now.
"Somebody's going to call you up and say, 'Don't you want to be on our [presidential campaign's] steering committee?' " Pinkerton explained. "Half of these delegates will probably be back at the next convention. These people really are players. Beneath all this hoo-ha here at the convention, there really is a central [nominating] process at work."
The new guard may have to contend with at least some of this year's crop, including former Vice President Dan Quayle, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, California Gov. Pete Wilson, millionaire publisher Steve Forbes, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and even House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Republicans will also be closely watching, once more, the maneuvers of retired Gen. Colin L. Powell.
All the potential candidates want to impress the campaign veterans in attendance at the convention -- the fund-raisers, spin doctors and media whizzes -- so they can be recruited down the road.
Bush, the first-term Texas governor and son of former President George Bush, offers a case study in how to do it. He has worked tirelessly to promote himself this week, while also taking care to appear low-key.
"At this point," explained Karl Rove, his chief political adviser, "we're not here to hot-dog."
He doesn't have to. Bush enjoys unusual visibility thanks to family ties. When CBS broadcast an interview with the former president at his Maine vacation home this week, his son, the governor, clad in a Texas Rangers warm-up jacket, was seated alongside.
Bush is a master of ceremonies on the podium in San Diego, as is Whitman. But unlike other hopefuls, Bush has turned down most invitations to schmooze with the TV anchors or with network reporters on the convention floor.
The self-effacing and businesslike explanation from the Bush camp is that San Diego is an anomaly, a brief fling in the national arena. What matters, they say, is what's happening in Texas.
The party's next leaders "really need to prove themselves first, and [Bush] needs to prove himself" as governor, says his wife, Laura.
"This is my one foray into the spotlight," echoes Bush. "What I want to be is a great governor for Texas, as good a governor as I can possibly be."
As he prepares for a future national campaign, Bush is doing it in the same methodical fashion his father did -- and using some of the same props. In his speeches, which he has delivered before delegations from Georgia, Ohio and other states this week, he never fails to mention his popular mother, Barbara, and his own wife.
Introducing Laura Bush to the Florida delegates, Bush remarked that she "outshines her husband. The same thing that happened to my old man's going to happen to me."
Laura Bush was also given a high-profile speaking role at the convention by Republican planners. A former librarian, she has made literacy, her mother-in-law's longtime project, her cause, too.
Every presidential candidate needs a stump speech, and Bush has one that revolves around moral values.
America faces "a cultural crisis," he says. He blames fellow baby boomers and what he calls the "if it feels good, do it and blame somebody else" mind-set of the 1960s. Like other young conservatives who are trying to cope with stringent government budgets, Bush promotes greater personal responsibility as a solution.
"We're going to change America by changing the culture, and when we change the culture, we'll have the country we want for our children," he says.
While the would-be candidate pursues delegates, his political guru, Rove, works the national press. While Rep. Susan Molinari was delivering the keynote speech Tuesday night, Rove stood in the middle of the convention floor, talking nonstop to a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.
Rove points out Bush's fat campaign fund ( $6 million in the bank, to help finance his political travels and his 1998 re-election) and his high poll ratings (72 percent of Texas voters approve of the job he's going as governor).
Multiply the Bush effort in San Diego by five or 10, and a picture of the politicking under way at the convention begins to emerge -- even as those involved disclaim any hidden motivations.
Thompson was asked why he was speaking to the New York, Ohio and Texas delegations. "Because they asked me," he replied, with a smile.
Pub Date: 8/15/96