W.'s Bay State grubstake

By Joan Vennochi, Globe Columnist, 09/21/99

ou can take the candidate out of his cowboy boots, but you can't take all of the cowboy out of the candidate.

A swimsuit-clad George W. Bush was talking presidential politics poolside in Kennebunkport late this summer. ''Do you think I can win Massachusetts?'' Bush brashly asked his companion, Bay State businessman Joe O'Donnell. ''Of course not,'' replied the just-as-brash O'Donnell. ''But you can take $1.5 million out of the state.''

So far, Bush's Bay State take is at least $1 million - enough to explain why a Republican presidential candidate who is not yet the official party nominee might wonder out loud about a victory in Clinton-Gore country. Vice President Al Gore has raised about $600,000, according to a Gore campaign spokesman.

No campaign is just about money. Bush still has a lot of explaining to do on topics political and personal. (That seems clear when you have Miss Texas talking openly about allegations concerning Governor Bush and cocaine during an unscripted portion of the Miss America Pageant. Obviously the drug issue has gone beyond the talking heads in the national media to ''the people.'')

But this weekend, the Texas governor, who is already known to many as a single initial - or, if you follow Doonesbury, by an empty cowboy hat - is swinging into Massachusetts for more cash. On Saturday night, Andi and Chris Jenny of Wayland will host a reception for George W. and his wife, Laura, his father and mother, George and Barbara Bush, and his brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

Several factors back up the George W. Bush money boom in Massachusetts.

There is respect for his crowd-pleasing capabilities and the job he currently holds - even though one Massachusetts audience reportedly gasped out loud when he told them how many Texas death row prisoners met their maker in just one year on his watch as governor.

There is also a deep reservoir of respect for George W.'s father, the former president. Governor Paul Cellucci and the state's top Republicans are solidly behind the son. And support from people like O'Donnell, who work both sides of the political aisle, also helps the younger Bush. ''He can do the job,'' says O'Donnell, explaining his out front role as a Massachusetts finance cochair for the Bush campaign. ''He's not just some guy whose father happened to be president. He ignites audiences.''

Gore is not known as an audience igniter. But his biggest concern right now is not Bush but another Democrat, former US senator Bill Bradley.

Like Gore, Bradley induces snores, not shivers of delight, on the stump. But he is raising money at Gore's expense.

Gore inherited his Bay State fund-raising machine from Bill Clinton, who inherited it from Michael Dukakis. Smooth and savvy, it has come through time and again for Clinton. But it could be bogging down a bit for the vice president for two reasons.

The first is strictly local; but then, as Tip O'Neill put it, all politics is. It involves a legal battle between Boston businessmen Fred A. Siegel and Alan M. Leventhal against Andrew Cuomo, the secretary of housing and urban development. The bad karma spiraling out between these two top Clinton-Gore fund-raisers and a Cabinet secretary could chill the Gore effort - here and in New Hampshire.

Second, Clinton fatigue, and its spillover impact on Gore, is an issue, even here. As an alternative to the VP, Bradley holds special appeal for independents and the high-tech and financial services crowds. Former Massachusetts Attorney General Jim Shannon, who is helping Bradley raise money, points to a June fund-raiser that raised a quick and cool $225,000.

The ex-senator and ex-NBA player is scheduled to be in Massachusetts today; so is Gore.

How will money translate into votes? It's way too early to predict. Still, Shannon, a Democrat, says ''you never say never'' to anything in politics, including a Republican victory in Massachusetts.

Consultant Peter Berlandi, a cohost for the Bush fund-raiser this weekend, believes it's plausible that Massachusetts could go Republican - and if it did, it would mean a lot.

''I don't think it's an insignificant state to win, because of its deep Democratic roots,'' says Berlandi, who has raised millions for Republicans and Democrats in Massachusetts and around the country.

Ronald Reagan won Massachusetts twice - in 1980 and 1984. Two Republican governors have presided here during the 1990s.

So anything is possible, especially after people declare themselves first with their checkbooks. Money always talks, and George W. Bush is definitely all ears.

Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist.