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Gov. Bush wins GOP straw poll Former president's son leads presidential pack in look at 2000 race


BILOXI, Miss. -- Gov. George W. Bush of Texas won a straw vote among Republican activists here this weekend as their first choice for the party's presidential nomination in 2000.

Bush carried the day although he was the only one of the leading contenders for the nomination who did not attend the Southern Regional Leadership Conference that attracted more than 1,600 delegates from 13 states.

The Texas governor received 18 percent of the 1,106 ballots counted, followed by millionaire publisher Steve Forbes, 15 percent; former Vice President Dan Quayle, 12 percent; Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, 10 percent; Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri, 9 percent; former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, 8 percent; and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, 6 percent. None of the other 21 names on the ballot attracted more than 5 percent.

When votes for both first and second choices for the nomination were combined, Bush won again with 31 percent, and the others finished in the same order, except that Quayle was second and Forbes third.

Although the straw vote carries no weight in terms of delegate selection for the GOP convention in 2000, the results will be studied closely within the political community for clues on the attitudes of the Southerners who make up the single most reliable base for the party.

The Bush success sent one message simply because the votes were cast by party activists who would not mistake his name for that of his father, former President George Bush. Poll-takers say that phenomenon is common in surveys taken among voters in " general and contributes in some degree to Bush's leading position nationally.

Although some Bush advisers were here, the governor skipped the three-day meeting because he has adopted a policy of avoiding any overt involvement in presidential politics until after his expected re-election in November.

Bush aside, there were some results of the straw poll that will raise eyebrows among political professionals. The fact that Forbes, Quayle and Ashcroft polled more than one-third of the vote will be taken as another indication of the high priority Southern Republicans give to cultural and social conservatism on such issues as abortion rights and education. All three evoked enthusiastic applause by stressing those concerns in their speeches to the conference.

If there was a candidate who showed surprising strength, it was Thompson of Tennessee, who won fourth place after a well-received speech in which he took President Clinton to task for his personal conduct. Thompson finished ahead of fellow Tennessean Alexander, despite the fact that Alexander had attracted several hundred delegates to join a receiving line in his suite the first night of the convention.

Gingrich's weak showing also was a mild surprise. He gave a rousing speech at a Saturday night dinner and spent much of the evening going from table to table greeting delegates individually.

The candidate who suffered the most obvious black eye was Jack Kemp, the 1996 vice presidential nominee who finished back with the also-rans. Kemp is suspect with the cultural conservatives because of his strong advocacy of efforts to broaden the Republican Party by attracting more racial and ethnic minority voters. And he has been widely judged within the party to have been a weak performer against Vice President Al Gore in 1996.

The straw vote also asked delegates who they expected to win the nomination, and again Bush led the field with 31 percent, more than double the number who thought Quayle would be nominated. Asked their first choice for vice president, the delegates voted most heavily for Rep. J. C. Watts of Oklahoma, who gave a rousing speech at one session and has emerged as the leading black in Republican ranks.

The straw vote culminated a meeting that seemed far less focused on 2000 presidential nominees than on bashing Clinton on the Monica Lewinsky matter. Speaker after speaker drew enthusiastic applause by making the point that the president is, as Alexander put it, "a national embarrassment" because of his alleged involvement with the former White House intern.

The emphasis given to the Lewinsky controversy suggested that many Republicans have reached the point at which they believe a polite silence is less effective than a direct attack on Clinton's moral standards. As one Republican strategist said privately, "Those good polls for Clinton aren't written in stone, not if we find out he's been lying all along."

The Republican speakers also attacked the president's policy toward Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. They found sure applause lines when they complained that Clinton had "subcontracted" U.S. authority to the United Nations, an organization never popular with conservatives in American politics.

The delegates represented 13 states in which there are nine Republican governors, 18 U.S. senators and 82 members of the House. These states also elected almost one-third of the delegates to the last Republican nominating convention.

Pub Date: 3/02/98

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