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Campaigning for president already? Early start: Gore and Gephardt spar while Republican roadshow for 2000 election begins.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

STEVE FORBES has been broadcasting radio ads in key states since early this year. Lamar Alexander treated 1,300 activists to free lobsters at a New Hampshire picnic. Dan Quayle put on a full-court press at a political beauty pageant in his former home state, Indiana, last weekend.

What are all these Republican wannabes up to less than a year after Democrat Bill Clinton won another four-year stay in the White House? Can't Americans get a respite from these seemingly endless presidential campaigns?

Apparently not. Republican hopefuls paraded their bona fides before the party faithful in Indianapolis in the earliest kickoff yet to the presidential primary season. This one will be a true marathon, lasting a full three years.

Republicans have plenty of candidates to look over. Mr. Quayle, the former vice president, resurfaced as a conservative Republican purist and scold of Washington evils. Take that, Newt Gingrich, who was there defending the balanced-budget deal and other realities of life elected officials must face.

Outsiders, though, can play to Republicans' anti-Washington sentiment: Mr. Forbes and Jack Kemp are pushing for a flat tax (or better yet, no taxes at all); Pat Buchanan is preaching a conservative social agenda; Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the son of Mr. Quayle's boss in those White House years, is promoting his fresh (and largely unknown) persona, and the peripatetic Alan Keyes of Maryland is always happy to lecture on what's wrong with America.

Even beltway insiders are talking like outsiders. Sen. Fred Thompson talks of cleaning up campaign financing abuses. Rep. John Kasich calls for doing away with federal overspending and budget deficits. And Mr. Gingrich seeks redemption by renewing the battles Republicans lost to President Clinton.

This wide divergence in political views reflects the deep split within the GOP over its future course, with party pragmatists and ideologues pulling in opposing directions. Will Republicans campaign next time as a party of outsiders, or of congressional insiders? Will social Christian issues or traditional fiscal issues predominate?

Meanwhile, two Democrats have maneuvered all summer to woo their party's activists. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt has distanced himself from the president, particularly over the balanced budget deal. He eyes union and environmentalist support, groups Vice President Al Gore also has been courting. The two will knock heads this fall over granting the president fast-track authority to expand the NAFTA trade accord.

With the stakes so high, it's no wonder so many politicians are willing to undertake this long, long race. Voters, though, wouldn't mind a three-year hiatus instead of a three-year presidential campaign.

Pub Date: 8/28/97

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