- The Washington Times - Friday, January 21, 2000

Texas Gov. George W. Bush is seeking the Republican presidential nomination as a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, but he is not courting many of the conservative grass-roots groups that helped elect Ronald Reagan.

Unlike Mr. Reagan, whose political path to the presidency was blazed by an army of insurgent, conservative activists and grass-roots organizations, Mr. Bush's political strength has come from the GOP's establishment governors, members of Congress, Republican Party donors and the business community.

Last Friday, a majority of the Republican National Committee 94 members endorsed his candidacy in an unprecedented action so early in a campaign.

While Mr. Bush is drawing support from some powerhouse conservative groups, such as Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, the National Right To Life Committee and Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, leaders of other conservative groups say he has snubbed them in his rise to political power.

"I think he's ignored many conservative groups. I kind of get the impression that he doesn't think he needs them," said Phyllis Schlafly, president of the Eagle Forum, whose grass-roots women's organization was one of Mr. Reagan's staunchest allies.

"Reagan had a genuine grass-roots following, and there was genuine enthusiasm for him. You don't see enthusiasm for Bush at the grass roots," Mrs. Schlafly said.

But unlike Mr. Reagan, who did not attract broad support from the Republican establishment until he locked up the nomination in 1980, Mr. Bush began drawing party support as soon as his political stock started climbing in the polls in late 1998 and early 1999.

Moreover, while Mr. Reagan was a regular fixture at conservative grass-roots functions, like the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that is held here each year, Mr. Bush rarely speaks to these kinds of groups.

While some longtime conservative activists are divided among the field of Republican contenders, many big organizations seem to have sided with Mr. Bush even without courting from the Texas governor.

Mr. Norquist, who backs Mr. Bush, has been running ads in New Hampshire in the last several weeks attacking the Texas governor's chief rival, John McCain, for his campaign finance reform bill.

A veteran anti-tax crusader, Mr. Norquist has been especially influential in this year's presidential race on that issue. He has succeeded in getting all of the Republican presidential candidates to sign the group's pledge against higher taxes.

The National Right to Life Committee has also given Mr. Bush high marks for his position on right-to-life issues. At the same time, it condemned Mr. McCain when he appeared to back away from pro-life positions in interviews he gave last year.

Both of these groups have been heavily financed by the Republican National Committee to promote issues of importance to the GOP.

At the three-day CPAC meeting the biggest conservative gathering of the year, which began yesterday Mr. Bush appears to have won the hearts of the 2,500 political activists from around the country.

Based on random interviews and a show of hands at one of the conference's opening sessions yesterday, activists appeared either eager to see Mr. Bush become the Republican standard-bearer or indicated that they are resigned to the apparent inevitability of his nomination, even though they support one or another of the other contenders.

Asked if he could support Mr. Bush with enthusiasm, Brett Balkcum, an accountant and self-described "Reagan conservative" from the District of Columbia, thought for a moment and then said, "With more enthusiasm, I think, than anyone else running."

Said Jameson Campaigne, a board member of the American Conservative Union and book publisher from Illinois: "Conservatives want to win, and without a better option for them than Bush, he is a halfway decent choice for these folks."

Last year, a group of prominent conservative movement leaders, including direct mail fund-raiser Richard Viguerie, social conservative Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation, and Republican National Committee member Morton Blackwell of Virginia, endorsed Steve Forbes. But their endorsement did not translate into any significant new grass-roots support for Mr. Forbes' candidacy, which remains in the single digits nationally.

To some in the conservative movement who were part of Mr. Reagan's rise to the presidency, their inability to mount any enthusiasm for Mr. Forbes as the conservative alternative to Mr. Bush may be as much a sign of their declining influence as it is of Mr. Forbes' weakness as a candidate.

"One question to ask the conservatives who endorsed Forbes is: Why hasn't your endorsement turned into a stronger showing for Forbes?" said a major conservative grass-roots leader who did not want to be identified.

Another reason that conservative leaders appear to have less influence in this year's presidential contest is that virtually all of the contenders "are running as Ronald Reagan conservatives," Mr. Norquist said.

"In 1980, Reagan was a conservative and the other candidates were not. This year, most of the Republican presidential candidates are comfortable with the conservative movement," he said.

"It's hard for them to say to their supporters that there is an obvious good guy and a bad guy. These candidates are all running as the heir to Reagan's legacy."

Ralph Z. Hallow contributed to this report.

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