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California and the West

Cox Raises Profile by Seeking to Replace Gingrich as Speaker

Politics: Newport Beach Republican is an overnight news show darling after brief flirtation with House post.


WASHINGTON — When Bob Dole was considering Christopher Cox for vice president two years ago, Time magazine asked: "Who?"

But on Sunday morning, when the Newport Beach congressman left CBS's Washington studio after appearing as the lead guest on "Face the Nation," cameras from every major television network were staked out at the door waiting for a shot of him. No one asked who he was.

Cox's foray into the race for House speaker may have flamed out in 48 hours. But he soaked up more national television exposure in a single weekend than he had in a decade as a congressman, and raised his political profile, if not his rung on the GOP leadership ladder.

By most accounts, Cox took a great leap when he entered a race Friday that his chief opponent--Rep. Bob Livingston of Louisiana--had spent a year preparing for. But he landed comfortably on Washington's political radar screen.

"He underscored what Cox-watchers have always known--that he is extremely articulate and a very capable party spokesperson," said Jack Pitney, political science professor at Claremont McKenna College.

What might have looked like a humiliating defeat in any other universe was more likely a political coup in the odd world of Washington, where the old adage that even bad publicity is better than no publicity is still the rule.

Gone are the days when the battle for the speaker's chair was slugged out in a back room over bourbon and cigars. This was a leadership fight of a modern age--Cox threw his hat into the ring Friday night on CNN's "Larry King Live."

"It's part of the job interview," Cox said as he made the talk show circuit Sunday morning, chauffeured around town by a CBS driver. "Everyone who votes knows a key part of the job is the ability to communicate with a key part of the country."

And on network television is precisely where Cox--a youthful 46 with straight white teeth and a temper that never blows--showed his stuff. He may have locked up scarcely 50 of his colleagues' votes--even the 24 Republicans from California did not unanimously back him--but on the small screen, he got high marks.

And when the dust settles, he will probably still be sitting at the leadership table.

"I will continue to be a leader in the Congress--indeed, the only elected leader from California in the House or Senate," Cox said Monday. "And I'll be a winner, along with the rest of the country, if Congress enacts our agenda of better schools, a secure Social Security system, a strong national defense and lower taxes for working Americans."

Some critics said Cox's short-lived bid may have himself done more harm than good.

"His running was just a joke. He talks about running for everything--the Senate, vice president, House majority leader. He's the serial candidate," one congressional Republican aide said. "He's becoming our new Bob Dornan--do anything to get on the talk shows, whether or not it has credibility."

But even if his detractors smirked at the short-lived Cox run, backers say that he brought more visibility to California in the process. Cox said he dropped out of the speaker's race to spare his hemorrhaging party 10 more days of division before the Nov. 18 vote.

"Mr. Cox's run certainly brought some visibility to California," said Dave LesStrang, press secretary to Rep. Jerry Lewis of Redlands, the senior member of state's House Republicans. "Chris is one of many members of the delegation who are leaders. There are going to be future leadership races and Chris Cox may well be a candidate."

Cox withdrew in time to run for the leadership position he now holds--head of the Republican Policy Committee, the main source of GOP policy pronouncements. Some predict that role will bump Cox's profile even higher with Newt Gingrich out of the chair and a more subdued Livingston in it.

"Working in the glare of Newt Gingrich, the policy committee did not have a chance to shine. Now it does," Claremont's Pitney said.

And if his California colleagues did not line up behind him for speaker, they most certainly will for policy chair, members said. His opponent is Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan.

Overall, the stock of the California delegation--the largest in the House--stands to go up under a Speaker Livingston, who is now running unopposed for the top job.

Rep. David Dreier of San Dimas is on track to take over the Rules Committee, which sets the House's national agenda. And Lewis is third in line to chair the Appropriations Committee--the spot Livingston leaves open when he ascends to speaker.

While Reps. Bill Young of Florida and Ralph Regula of Ohio are in line ahead of Lewis, some say his close ties to Livingston and Young's reported heart problems leave Lewis a shot at the job that controls the purse strings of the House.

As for Cox, there's talk he may run for Senate in 2000, perhaps with a more visible presence than he had a few days ago.

"The problem anybody has in California is getting known in a state that big," said James Pinkerton, a Republican pundit who teaches at George Washington University. "Chris Cox has been on more national TV in the last three days than he'd been in his previous 10 years."

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