The Republican Presidential Hopeful

The Republican Presidential Hopeful

The Republican Presidential Hopeful

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
May 3 1998 3:30 AM

The Republican Presidential Hopeful

How to run for president--two years early.


After his excruciating performance in the 1996 Republican presidential campaign, Lamar Alexander should have had the grace to disappear quietly into the Tennessee backwoods. But here we are, a full 900 days before the 2000 election, and Alexander is running again--airing ads in Iowa, fund raising, pandering, mounting his high horse, and doing all the other unappetizing things a presidential candidate must do.


Alexander, who has been campaigning for president more or less nonstop since 1993, is the very model of the Republican Presidential Hopeful, or RPH, but he's hardly alone. With no Republican heir apparent, the 2000 race promises to be the wildest GOP primary in a generation. There are, by my count, two dozen Republicans considered (at least by their own estimation) viable 2000 candidates. is the full list.

And an astonishing number of them are already engaged in all-but-official campaigns, desperate quests to become an "early favorite." The will-be candidates are competing fiercely for donors, staff, volunteers, endorsements. (A caveat: Not all the potential candidates are pre-campaigning. George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole, for example, have carefully avoided any presidential posturing.)

S o who is the RPH? What are defining qualities?

The RPH is not easily deterred. Anyone who would spend three years of his life pursuing an office that he has no reasonable hope of winning must be irrepressible. The RPH isn't bothered by the fact that he's been routed before (Alexander, Alan Keyes, Pete Wilson, Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes, Jack Kemp); that he's the most hated man in politics (Newt Gingrich); that he's a national joke (Dan Quayle); that hardly anyone outside his home state has heard of him (John Ashcroft, Bob Smith, George Pataki, Tom Ridge, John Kasich, Tommy Thompson); that most voters will confuse him with an S&L crook (Frank Keating, the governor of Oklahoma--he's never heard of you, either); or that he might not get elected if he were the next-to-last American alive (Gary Bauer).

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.


The RPH pretends he isn't actually running. It's tacky to be campaigning for president in the first half of 1998, so--even though everyone knows he's going to run--the RPH generally insists he isn't a candidate. He has devised a number of lies and half-truths to convey this. "It's not something I'm thinking about right now" (Rudolph Giuliani). He won't decide until "1999" (Quayle), "for another year" (Kasich), until "after the 1998 elections" (lots of them). It's just an "exploratory committee" (Keyes). It's "very premature" to talk about it (Pataki). "I'm extremely flattered by the speculation," but a worthier candidate will certainly come along" (Bauer). "My focus is entirely on the state of ______" (Christie Todd Whitman and other governors). Instead of appearing to be the grasping pol he is, the RPH exudes the impression that he won't run unless the American people plead for his candidacy. Rare is the politician who doesn't hear that plea.

The RPH says he has a real job, but he doesn't. Some RPHs do actually work for a living: Sitting governors, members of Congress, Dole, and Bauer all hold real jobs. But often the RPH has a simulacrum of a career, the kind of work that is an excuse to spend every waking minute campaigning. (That means you, Keyes, Alexander, Quayle, Kemp, Buchanan. Would you dare say your job is "professional presidential candidate"?)

The RPH claims he is working for the good of America or the Republican Party or both. What, exactly, does this "work" consist of? Much of it is giving speeches. (Forbes has made nearly 300 over the last 18 months.)

The rest of the RPH's work is running his political action committee or "grass-roots" advocacy group. This group has a magnificent, patriotic name: Campaign for a New American Century! Live Free or Die! Solutions America! Spirit of America! (Click to play a game: Match the RPH to his group.) The RPH's group has ambitious goals: to advocate the flat tax (Forbes); to draft "an agenda for a new American century" (Alexander); to "build and strengthen the Republican Party" (Quayle). In fact, the group has only one real purpose: to raise funds and promote the RPH before official campaigning (as well as official fund raising) begins in 1999.


W hat does the RPH believe in? Well, the RPH has Principles--. The RPH is high-minded. He frequently quotes Ronald Reagan. He especially enjoys taking a bold public stand against his party: This distinguishes him as a statesman who won't sacrifice principles for expediency. It also guarantees a bit of favorable press. Ashcroft regularly berates the Republican Congress for having "cut and run" rather than having tackled tough moral issues. Forbes periodically slaps Republicans in Congress for compromising: "Get real or get out!" is a Forbes slogan. Keyes makes a habit of denouncing the GOP: for expanding government, for approving treaties, for not impeaching Clinton, etc. And the RPH often slams fellow Republicans for not doing enough to ban abortion.

The RPH who must legislate or govern (Gingrich, Kasich, Bush) is quieter about his principles--probably because he actually has to live by them. There is no such check on the unemployed RPH.

The RPH has a multipoint tax plan (usually at least four points, often 10). The RPH generally believes in the flat tax, which should be set at 17 percent. (Quayle--that tax-and-spend liberal--would set it at a whopping 19 percent.) The RPH might also believe in eliminating the income tax (Keyes), slashing the income tax and raising tariffs (Buchanan), or rejiggering the tax code to save taxpayers $985 billion (Ashcroft, by abolishing taxes on inheritances and on Social Security benefits, among other measures). The RPH does not much elaborate on how he would balance the budget after his cuts.


T he RPH is a writer. The RPH has hidden literary talents. You can't turn around in a bookstore without knocking over a pile of (unsold) RPH books. Click for a list of them and another mix-and-match game.


The publication of the RPH book is followed by the book tour, which leads to the next fact about the RPH:

The RPH likes to travel--to New Hampshire and Iowa. Gingrich recently toured to promote Lessons Learned the Hard Way. He found himself signing books in Manchester, N.H., and Des Moines, Iowa--undoubtedly because those cities are famed for their interest in great literature. Forbes, Alexander, Ashcroft, Kasich, and John McCain have also recently visited New Hampshire. Forbes, Alexander, Ashcroft, Smith, and Keyes have stopped off in Iowa. Kemp has traveled to Iowa at least seven times. And the pressing business of New York took Pataki on a 12-city tour through the South and the West.

The RPH will also travel to any place where a few dozen Republicans have gathered. Last summer, the "Midwestern Republican Leadership Conference" in Indianapolis drew eight RPHs. A similar meeting in Biloxi, Miss., this year also attracted eight hopefuls. Even the recent summit of the Harris County, Texas, Republicans managed to pull in Quayle, Forbes, Keating, Ashcroft, and Bauer. If you held a family reunion, you could probably get Ashcroft, Keyes, and Forbes to give stump speeches at the barbecue.

The RPH trolls for endorsements. The RPH knows he needs support from the opinion-making class to win in 2000. The RPH has almost certainly appeared on Evans & Novak. If he's lucky, the RPH has been championed by a pundit: Cal Thomas just wrote a paean to Quayle. Kasich won a full-throated cheer from the New York Times Magazine.


There is one endorsement the RPH seeks above all: Ralph Reed's. The RPH longs to sign the former Christian Coalition boss as a campaign consultant. Quayle, Kemp, Forbes, Alexander, Bush, Kasich, and Ashcroft have already met with Reed and kissed his ring.

Perhaps the most important--and certainly most ridiculous--element of the pre-campaign is the early polls. Never has so much been made of such flimsy numbers. Ashcroft got a media boost when he finished first in a survey of Christian Coalition state chapter leaders. Forbes fans tout his top finish in a straw poll of Conservative Political Action Conference members. There have been national news stories based on straw polls of a few hundred party loyalists in Mississippi, Texas, and the Midwest. Recently, a 234-person phone poll by a New Hampshire TV station made headlines.

There is a discouraging lesson in the polls for the RPH. Bush has finished first, easily, in every poll except the Christian Coalition's and CPAC's. He is also one of the few RPHs who eschews the pre-campaign. He's running for re-election as governor this fall, and he doesn't want Texans to worry that he'll skip out on them midway through his second term (which, of course, is exactly what he'd like to do). So Bush has no PAC and no book. He hasn't traveled to Iowa or New Hampshire, and he avoids most GOP conferences. Instead he's just governing and campaigning in Texas.

This should frighten the daylights out of the RPH. Perhaps all the scheming, posturing, speechifying, and money-grubbing in the world can't help the RPH. Perhaps Republican voters really want to reward the doer--not the campaigner, not the pre-campaigner.

If you missed the full list of Republican Presidential Hopefuls, click. You can also test your RPH knowledge with these quizzes about RPH and.