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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Bush's new fraternity brothers

The front runner could have no better protectors than the Republican Governors

By Margaret Carlson

Time magazine

December 6, 1999
Web posted at: 1:27 p.m. EST (1827 GMT)

I was at ground zero of the de facto stop McCain movement recently, as a guest speaker at the Republican Governors Association at La Costa, a luxurious California resort with clay tennis courts, milk baths and valets dressed like footmen.

In exchange for being on the program, I got more face time than usual with the Governors, including late-night margaritas and brandy. While I was fascinated by their discussion about taxing sales on the Internet, what I was really looking for was any crack in their pre-emptive, granite-hard support for their colleague, Governor George W. Bush. Lately, he had given off a slight whiff of Dan Quayle, and his first debate was imminent. Senator John McCain was showing surprising strength. And surely there must be some Oval Office envy, given that one of their own had left them in the presidential dust. Stare in the mirror now, and at best there's a Vice President staring back. I was certain there would be some hurt feelings when Bush dissed the meeting entirely, even though he was only 15 minutes away in San Diego raising money.

I wheedled the teeniest glimmer of criticism out of North Dakota Governor Ed Schafer, the incoming chair of the association, who allowed as how he thought it would be a nice touch if the Governor were to make a cameo appearance, given that the group was voting a pre-primary endorsement of him, the first in its 36-year history. But when Bush sent word--"Love ya, but can't get there"--Schafer was all forgiveness. "It wouldn't have been a good use of a presidential candidate's time. He's already got us."

Boy, does he. There's no establishment like the Republican Establishment. These guys don't complain; they don't wobble; they won't entertain the notion that Bush is slighter than many others in their exclusive club, like Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson, who considered running but didn't when he concluded that "Bush was more famous, had more money and was better looking." Bush has advantages the rest of them don't--lineage, family crest and primogeniture--not to mention that modern tool of war, a massive treasury. He also wooed them, as if he were back at his fraternity house. And he still does: he arm squeezes and bear hugs; he calls; he has them to the mansion. He gives each one a nickname. What does it matter if he isn't the wonkiest among them? These are can-do guys who admire a winner and want more than anything to regain the throne lost to an illegitimate king in 1992. They aren't concerned that their own loyal subjects may not like being told what to do. They're in love.

Unlike Dole in '96, Bush invites them to come along for the ride. He's a constant buddy movie. He took Montana Governor Marc Racicot on his plane to New Hampshire for last Thursday's debate there. In exchange, Bush has been the beneficiary of the Governors' outsize money and political operations. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge says Bush is the first candidate "to absorb the Governors' organizations so completely into his own."

If the Governors squabble among themselves, it's over who will throw up the best fire wall, should McCain wound Bush in New Hampshire or South Carolina. "I'm solid asbestos," Michigan Governor John Engler crows. "I'm not conceding anything to McCain in New Hampshire, but when he gets to Michigan on Feb. 22, he runs into a state where I've got an organization that has won for me three times, where the legislature is overwhelmingly for Bush, where 65% of county chairmen are already lined up. On Veteran's Day, in bellwether Macomb County, 250 leaders came out from every city and township to sign up with Bush." Engler has so wrapped up the players that McCain did not name a state chair until mid-November, and he's a rookie at that.

One week after Michigan, Virginia's Governor Jim Gilmore is ready with his bright red ladder truck and wailing siren as well. "George and Laura campaigned here so that the G.O.P. got control of the legislature, and I intend to return the favor. Virginia will be a giant step in his winning march," he says. To that end, he moved Virginia's primary up to Feb. 29. As for Governor George Pataki's New York, which votes on March 7: fuhgeddaboutit. Despite improvements in the state's unconscionable ballot access requirements, Pataki has kept it sufficiently difficult that it would take a miracle for McCain to qualify in enough districts to have a shot. And Bush is even competing in McCain's Arizona, with Governor Jane Hull's help, which is forcing the Senator to spend scarce resources there.

So what do the Governors get out of Bush for their fealty? Attention, as he triangulates against the less popular Republicans in Congress; money, as he promises to send more to the states; and the possibility that one of them will be his Vice President. At the Iowa straw poll in August, Bush squealed, "Tommy T., you're the best," to the Wisconsin Governor on the short list. In June, Bush ran along the Susquehanna River with Pennsylvania's Ridge during a two-day swing through that state and joked that he "would make a great jogging mate." His campaign has registered Bush-Ridge on the Internet, but also Bush-Engler, Bush-Pataki and Bush-Whitman.

So life for Bush remains a lot like rush time at the DKE house. At a time of peace and good times, he's not worried about the talent contest. He's already won Mr. Congeniality.


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: December 13, 1999

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