WASHINGTON — With the 1988 Republican presidential campaign shifting from the strategic planning stage to actual combat on the hustings, the contest is taking shape as the political equivalent of a two-ring circus. And that, in turn, is dictating the game plans of all six major GOP candidates.
Facing each other in the main ring are the two most formidable contenders--Vice President George Bush and Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, both of whom are expected to declare their candidacies sometime in October. Each man's strategists know their candidate must defeat the other or be eliminated himself.
In the other ring, which at least for now is little more than a sideshow, the game plans for the other four candidates have one thing in common: Each is struggling to edge out the other three in the early going, then go on later to defeat the winner of the Bush-Dole clash.
New York Rep. Jack Kemp, television evangelist Pat Robertson, former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV and former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. would each be glad, for example, to finish no worse than third, or thereabouts, in the traditional opening test, next February's Iowa caucuses.
This Republican order of battle contrasts sharply with the situation in the Democratic Party, where there is no clear leader among the presidential contenders.
What dictates the two-ring approach of GOP strategists is the long shadow cast by the clear front runner, Vice President Bush. He is indisputably the best known, the best financed, the best organized candidate in the Republican field. And he has managed to survive the Iran- contra scandal with his lead intact.
"Bush is increasingly formidable," Republican consultant Eddie Mahe Jr. said. "He has shown a capacity to avoid mistakes."
If Bush is "the front runner," says Charles Black, campaign manger for Kemp, then Dole is " a front runner," operating on a level just below Bush and above the rest.
Running for 12 Years
Bush and Dole have certain similarities in background, said Richard Williamson, who was senior strategist for former Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt, who pulled out of the race last week. "They've both been running for President for about 12 years."
In addition, Williamson pointed out, they are both rooted in the GOP's traditional ruling Establishment: Bush hails from its Eastern upper crust, Dole from its Midwestern bedrock. As Establishmentarians, their candidacies are driven by the pragmatic practice of politics rather than its ideological music.
Bush's game plan will place far more stress on political muscle--money and organization--than on the themes and goals that make up a campaign message and endow a candidate with a special identity in the minds of voters. The vice president's strategists are prepared to beat back all challengers, but they recognize that Dole is their most immediate threat.
Dole's elevation over the other rivals gives his candidacy added credibility and helps him rally support and raise funds to compete against Bush. But the disadvantage of Dole's enhanced status is that it raises expectations for his performance in the primaries and caucuses and forces his strategists into aiming for an early defeat of Bush.
Like Bush's strategists, although operating on a somewhat smaller scale, Dole's managers seem to be putting more emphasis on money and organization than on philosophy in their plans for overtaking the vice president and fending off the four contenders in the lower tier.
It is in the second rank where most of the emphasis on ideology is to be found. Bush and Dole simply want Ronald Reagan's job. By contrast, Kemp, Robertson and Du Pont want to be recognized as Reagan's ideological heir--for reasons that are practical as well as philosophical.
With the exception of Haig--whose background in business and the White House makes him as much of an Establishmentarian as Bush or Dole--this group of long shots sees the development of a compelling ideological message as the critical first step on the road to the nomination. Only by projecting such a credo can they rally crucial conservative support.
Laxalt's withdrawal--he blamed lack of funds--emphasized the difficulties facing the remaining second-tier candidates. Laxalt's biggest asset was his close personal ties to Reagan. With his withdrawal, other candidates, notably Bush and Kemp, began courting prominent Reaganites who had been supporting the former senator.
Other analysts said that, by pulling out, Laxalt had enlarged the pool of rank-and-file conservative voters who could be wooed by his former rivals, most notably by Kemp and Du Pont. But, overall, Laxalt's absence does not seem likely to have much effect on the fundamental game plans of the remaining contenders because he had failed to establish himself in the competition.
"Almost by definition, he couldn't have had much support or he wouldn't have dropped out," said Robert Perkins, Du Pont's deputy campaign manager.