WASHINGTON -- When Dan Quayle announced the other day that he was taking the first step toward a campaign for the presidency in 2000, he became only one of a dozen or more Republicans who have shown an open interest in the party's nomination.
What is lacking, however, is a dominant figure with the obvious potential to pull the party together in the next two years and offer the electorate some coherent agenda.
Mr. Quayle doesn't qualify, though he was vice president for four years. Although he has a core of support among the cultural conservatives of the Religious Right, he's still viewed by many as a lightweight despite his tremendous fund-raising ability.
The obvious leader right now is Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, who was re-elected in a landslide and is leading all the national polls. The older son of the former president has been building a reputation as one who has the ability to deal with tricky issues and a diverse population in his first four years in Austin.
The day has passed when Mr. Bush's standing in the polls could be brushed off as largely respondents reacting to a familiar name, although that is still clearly a factor. What is more intriguing to Republican insiders has been his skill in using his fluency in Spanish to attract far more Latino support than most Republicans enjoy these days.
The critical question about Mr. Bush is, of course, whether he can prosper under the scrutiny and intense pressures that are brought to bear on any presidential candidate. Will his "compassionate conservatism" satisfy the religious fundamentalists or be seen as liberalism in disguise?
The first tier of Republicans also includes Elizabeth Dole, if only because her position as the lone woman in the field assures her a strong bloc of supporters. Ms. Dole also enjoys the advantage of having been operating outside "the mess in Washington" as head of the American Red Cross.
But Ms. Dole has a reputation as someone who is very controlling and rigid -- something that isn't always possible in the give-and- take of a presidential campaign.
There are at least three congressional Republicans who have attracted the interest of party strategists looking for fresh faces and some reputation for independence from politics as usual. The most prominent is Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a determinedly outspoken maverick and war hero. The question about Mr. McCain is simply whether he is too much the maverick to survive politically.
Also mentioned is Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, who is considered an especially strong TV performer and enjoys a reputation for independence. He has shown some interest in running but made no overt moves so far.
Rep. John Kasich of Ohio, the voluble chairman of the House Budget Committee, has established an exploratory committee. Although there are hurdles for House members, Mr. Kasich is a forceful enough personality that he cannot be written off.
The Republican field also includes several retreads from four years ago: Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander and magazine publisher Steve Forbes. And each has the framework for organizations in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Neither, however, has attracted a large enough following to make a strong impression in early polls. Former California Gov. Pete Wilson of California also is weighing another campaign.
Finally, there is a field of also-rans given little or no chance by professionals, and another field of governors who might be late entrants. The question for most of them is whether they can raise the money to compete.
For the Republicans, success is not a matter of how many candidates. Instead it is a matter of finding someone with a message more attractive than the one Congress has been sending.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.
Pub Date: 1/25/99