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Pundits & Prose

Ronald Elving is the political editor for Congressional Quarterly and part of the CQ Roundtable, a group of columnists that add perspective and insight into the political races. Elving's articles and columns on the inner workings of Congress have received high praise.

Could Gingrich Top GOP's 2000 List?

By Ronald D. Elving, CQ Staff Writer

On a recent visit to Washington, Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Tommy G. Thompson admitted to some personal interest in the presidential race of 2000.

"You have to take a look at it," the three-term governor said with a shrug of resignation. "There's a vacuum there."

This is not to say that the current field of presidential contenders is exactly empty. One can easily count more than a score of active aspirants in the GOP alone. Thompson was referring rather to the lack of a front-runner, a situation abhorrent to Republicans' political nature.

The last time the GOP was so at sea over its own succession was in 1940. Wendell L. Willkie, a political neophyte from Indiana, walked off with the nomination at the national convention (and got rolled by Franklin D. Roosevelt in November).

Since then, Republicans have smiled on front-runners: Thomas E. Dewey, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard M. Nixon, Barry M. Goldwater, Gerald R. Ford, Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

In 1996, Bob Dole took his party's commitment to hierarchy to a higher level, proving it was stronger than all the available evidence. Even Dole's stumbling in early caucuses and primaries could not overcome the party's faith in riding its lead horse.

The 2000 cycle, by contrast, begins in disorder. The first caucuses are two years away, but the early running is under way without a pacesetter. Colin Powell might fill the void, but he says he will not. Such a statement may be sincere or shrewd or both, but at a minimum it casts doubt.

Apart from Powell, the names atop most lists are the same four that graced the Republican ticket in the last three presidential cycles: Bush, Quayle, Dole and Kemp.

Only this time, the Bush is the former president's son, George W. Bush, who is about to be re-elected governor of Texas. The Dole is not Bob but his wife, Elizabeth, who has talked to fundraisers and otherwise evinced interest.

The Quayle is still Dan Quayle, the former senator and vice president whose part-time campaign for 2000 proceeds apace. The Kemp is still Jack F. Kemp, the former football star, House member and secretary of Housing and Urban Development who was Dole's running mate in 1996. Although less than certain to run in 2000, Kemp continues to travel and raise money and, of course, speak.

The rest of the field is composed of governors, recycled presidential contenders (Lamar Alexander, Pat Buchanan and Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes Jr. among them) and a phalanx of current senators.

It has been said that the members of the Senate divide into two groups: those who look into the bathroom mirror each morning imagining they hear "Hail to the Chief," and those who do not -- with the latter list thought to be the shorter.

But while many senators are so afflicted, the truth is that only two in this century have been elevated directly to the White House -- and they were separated by an interval of 40 years. The first was Ohio Republican Warren G. Harding, a last-minute draftee at the 1920 Republican convention. The second was Massachusetts Democrat John F. Kennedy, whose personal charisma and money put him over in 1960.

Another 40 years will have passed by 2000, and surely there will be senators who think they sense their moment. They will not be the contingent from 1996: Dole has retired, Phil Gramm of Texas, Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania have all learned their lesson -- at least for now.

In their place rise up Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, John Ashcroft of Missouri, John McCain of Arizona and Fred Thompson of Tennessee. Even Bob Smith of New Hampshire has let it be known that he would not mind being mentioned.

But in this cycle, the temptation to run may prove strong in the Other Body as well. Georgia's Newt Gingrich could become the first Speaker to tempt fate in this fashion since John Nance "Cactus Jack" Garner, D-Texas, in 1932.

Also hitting the trail in these early months is House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich, R-Ohio. But Kasich is likelier to grace the bottom half of the ticket before he has a shot at the top. The man to watch is the former history prof.

Audiences still gasp in disbelief when told that Gingrich might run. How could a man with approval ratings below 30 percent be so audacious? The answer is that Gingrich's poor polls are part of what compels him to run. He can never redeem his popular standing -- and thus his place in history -- from his current office. He is too deeply involved with an institution too little understood by the nation at large.

With no new worlds to be conquered in the House, why not take the spirit of 1994 to the next level?

The Republican nominating battle in 2000 will largely be fought out within that 30 percent of the population that likes Gingrich even now. This is a man who has always been best as a broken field runner. In a nomination field this wide open there is no telling how far he might go.

© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.
In CQ News

Saturday Jan. 10, 1998

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29 House Incumbents Bolt Out Of The Starting Gate
Celebrity Lawmaker Wore Renewed Fame Lightly
No Solution In Sight As Congress Prepares To Tackle Settlement
House Democrats Face Losing Another Seat In The South
Could Gingrich Top GOP's 2000 List?
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Hill Feels The Big Clout Of Small Business
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