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Bush Leads GOP Pack in Money Derby

Politics: In early going, Texas governor has raised $6 million for 2000 run, his aides say, second only to Democratic pacesetter Gore, with $7 million.


WASHINGTON — Without conducting a single fund-raiser or even officially launching a presidential campaign, Texas Gov. George W. Bush has raised an eye-popping $6 million in the first quarter of this year, second only to Vice President Al Gore's estimated $7 million, according to campaign aides.

As the first federal fund-raising deadline of the next presidential campaign came and went Wednesday, Bush's stack of checks towered so high that his war chest almost exceeded that of all of his Republican rivals combined.

The fund-raising reports covering the first three months of 1999 provide an early look at whether candidates' campaign contributions are keeping pace with their ambitions to be the next commander in chief.

Although presidential hopefuls must file detailed reports with the Federal Election Commission by April 15, some Republican candidates trumpeted their preliminary numbers Wednesday to show the viability of their campaigns.

Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, the 1996 candidate who never stopped running, took in about $700,000--plenty, his aides said, considering that he did not seriously focus on fund-raising in recent months. Conservative activist Gary Bauer gathered $1.4 million, about the same sum as Rep. John R. Kasich of Ohio and Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Former Vice President Dan Quayle amassed $2 million, which he called a sign of "significant grass-roots strength." Elizabeth Hanford Dole's first fund-raising report will total about $500,000, about the same as conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan's take. Dole and Buchanan both cited late starts in their quests for cash.

Others seeking the nomination are New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith, who raised about $300,000, and publisher Steve Forbes, whose campaign offered no figures Wednesday. Forbes spent more than $32 million of his own money in his 1996 bid, and there is plenty more where that came from.

Then there was Bush. His higher-than-expected fund-raising effort gave a formidable boost to a campaign that has made him a front-runner even before he officially has entered the race.

"I am honored and humbled [that] so many friends and supporters throughout Texas and America are donating to my exploratory effort to encourage me to run for president," Bush said in a news release, which made the point that the $6 million estimate might be low and that Bush had yet to break a sweat in his fund-raising efforts.

Because politics is all about perception, Bush's many rivals went into contortions to shrug off his considerable pile of loot.

"Our campaign starts slow and then builds momentum," said a Buchanan campaign strategist.

"People elect candidates, not money," asserted a handler for Dole.

Bauer's campaign manager extolled the benefits of receiving small contributions rather than big ones.

From many of the camps came the very same grumble: If their candidate had a former president for a father and another big-state governor for a brother, they would have raised $6 million too.

In a GOP primary that is so crowded and so front-loaded with primaries, dollars clearly make a difference. They fuel the airplane, buy the banners and provide the television ads, mailers and yard signs that give candidates an edge.

But cash-poor candidates are quick to point out that money does not make victory.

Just look at Ross Perot, who bankrolled independent presidential bids in 1992 and 1996 that initially spread like wildfire but eventually went up in smoke. Or Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, whose campaign failed in 1996 despite first-quarter fund-raising numbers that seemed to make him a force.

Asked about Gramm at a news conference in Austin on Wednesday, Bush said that the other Texan's campaign offers him interesting lessons. But as he does every time reporters question him too much about the job his father used to hold, Bush stressed that he will focus on his duties as governor through the current legislative session, which ends in June.

Well before June, however, Bush's friends and advisors will be working to boost his campaign holdings into the stratospheric range: the estimated $20 million or more that it will take to fund a serious White House bid.

Bush may not be making the rubber chicken circuit himself in coming weeks, but his parents--former President Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush--will appear on his behalf at a fund-raiser in Phoenix next week. Other surrogates will be doing the same across the country.

Bush's campaign handlers tried hard not to be smug about their quick dash out of the starting gate, even as they talked of amassing so much money that they might turn down federal matching funds.

"This is a good start," said Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes. "Money is an important indicator, but it's not the most important one. That will be the message and vision that Gov. Bush lays out once he decides to run."

Among Democrats, Gore's huge sum guarantees no cakewalk to the nomination. Unofficial reports put former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley's campaign coffers at somewhere around $4 million.

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