Bush plans to address conservatives in advance of straw poll

By Mary Leonard, Globe Staff, 1/19/2000

ASHINGTON - Texas Governor George W. Bush is making last-minute plans to appeal to a convention of 2,000 conservative activists here and win the group's straw poll on the eve of the GOP's first presidential caucuses Monday in Iowa.

Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer confirmed yesterday that on Saturday, Bush will address the annual Conservative Political Action Conference by satellite from Iowa. The invitation from the group, which represents the most conservative wing of the Republican Party, had been extended months ago but was only accepted by Bush on Monday, said Diana Banister, a CPAC spokeswoman.

''Bush is sort of in a panic. He is certainly feeling pressure to at least make an effort to reach out to conservatives who represent the Republican base,'' Banister said.

Fleischer said Bush considers CPAC ''an important group'' and was ''pleased to be able to squeeze it into his schedule.''

Bush also would like to beat millionaire publisher Steve Forbes, his closest competitor in Iowa and until this week the only GOP candidate scheduled to address the convention, in CPAC's presidential-preference poll. Results of the poll will be released Saturday afternoon and could aid the winner - or sting front-runner Bush - over the weekend in Iowa, where religious and social conservatives have a loud voice in party politics.

''It might be a real embarrassment to Bush in Iowa if he got spanked by Steve Forbes in the straw poll,'' said L. Brent Bozell, chairman of the conservative Media Research Center and a Forbes supporter.

A year ago, Gary Bauer, former head of the conservative Family Research Council, mobilized friends and backers into ''Bauer Power'' and won CPAC's straw poll with 28 percent of the vote. Bush came in second with 24 percent, though he was not yet a candidate and did not address the gathering. Forbes, who gave a CPAC speech in 1999 cautioning conservatives to beware of ''mealy-mouthed rhetoric'' from candidates with familiar names, came in third with 10 percent of those polled.

Bauer will not participate at CPAC this year, but it is not because he fears he cannot repeat his first-place straw poll finish, said Jeffrey Bell, a Bauer adviser. ''With limited resources, what are you going to invest it in, a satellite feed to CPAC or campaigning for votes in Iowa?'' asked Bell, noting that CPAC had scored a ''coup by becoming a player in the nomination fight.''

Yesterday, Forbes informed CPAC that he would give his speech, scheduled for tomorrow, by satellite instead of in person. Former ambassador Alan Keyes, who had not been expected to appear, told CPAC officials he now plans to attend. Reform Party presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan is scheduled to speak Friday.

Because its convention comes so close to the Iowa caucuses, CPAC officials offered each of the candidates, except Arizona Senator John McCain, the option to make a speech by satellite. Banister said McCain was the only candidate to decline the group's initial invitation on grounds that he does not participate in straw polls. CPAC and McCain are also at odds over the senator's proposal to end certain unlimited campaign spending by political action committees.

''We feel that the best campaign events we can do is being with conservative voters in ... states that are going to have early primaries,'' said McCain spokesman Howard Opinsky.

Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, called Bush's decision to speak to CPAC ''a striking switch'' resulting from both his need to suppress Forbes in Iowa and to position himself as more conservative than McCain, who, two weeks before the first primary, is running even with him in the polls in New Hampshire.

''This perfectly epitomizes the change of strategy that has been forced on Bush by McCain's campaign,'' Kristol said. ''Bush started off as a centrist, a compassionate conservative, and now he is running as an orthodox Republican conservative against the heretical McCain. The kinder, gentler Bush suddenly is sounding like Tom DeLay,'' the conservative House Republican whip.

''This is scary for Bush. Maybe he thinks he can go to CPAC and pick off some of those conservative voters by claiming he is their standard bearer,'' Kristol said. ''I don't know if he can pull it off.''