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GOP Kicks-Off 2000 Campaign in Large Midwestern Meeting

By Terry M. Neal and Ceci Connolly
The Washington Post

In what is supposed to be the sleepiest month on the political calendar, more than 1,200 midwestern Republicans gathered here this weekend for the unofficial launch of the 2000 presidential campaign - three years before voters go to the ballot box.

The crowd saw a line-up of GOP stars worthy of a national party convention, hoping one will be able to reclaim the White House after eight years under President Clinton. About the only people at the gathering who didn't want to talk openly about a presidential election were the contestants themselves.

But their actions told a different story.

Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., swooped in Saturday from Washington to sign autographs and pose with a cherubic toddler - perhaps the first baby photo of the 2000 campaign.

Former Vice President Dan Quayle came in from his new home of Arizona to pose for hundreds of snapshots with fans at the Indianapolis Speedway. Texas Gov. George W. Bush, no stranger to presidential politics, spent a brief four hours in Indianapolis before dashing out waving off a pack of reporters with "Gotta go. Gotta plane to catch."

Jack Kemp, the 1986 vice presidential nominee, flew in for the closing lunch Sunday.

Along the way, they all paused to give very presidential sounding speeches.

The four were part of a cast of possible presidential candidates that also included publisher Steve Forbes, former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and radio host Alan Keyes.

Mayor Steven Goldsmith, R, basking in the attention his city was receiving, talked with a big smile on his face about how much he enjoyed "meeting with all of the presidential candidates" attending the Midwest Republican Leadership Conference. Reminded that none had officially announced their campaigns, the GOP mayor said: "What else would you call them? They all look like presidential candidates to me."

Thompson was one of few speakers to make even an oblique reference to the line-up of presidential aspirants.

"Someone came in and asked me about this beauty contest that we were having here today," he said, drawing chuckles from the crowd at a luncheon Saturday. "Well, I've seen the list of all of us beauty contestants, and I hope they have more than one prize for Mr. Congeniality because there ain't going to be any beauty awards handed out, I don't think."

In an interview, Quayle said he would place himself "in the category of "might have presidential ambitions."'

Kemp Sunday came down squarely on both sides of the presidential campaign question.

"Newt and the Republicans ought to be focusing on '98, not 2000," he told reporters. "The American people do not want perpetual races for the presidency."

But he then detailed his myriad activities to keep his profile high and rekindle some of the enthusiasm activists lost for him in the last campaign. His political action committee is raising money and he has stepped up his travel to key primary states and abroad. "All those things are part and parcel of my being ready to make a decision subsequent to the '98 elections."

Under traditional circumstances, it would be absurd to begin discussing a presidential campaign more than three years before an election. But these are not normal times, said many of the party activists gathered here for the three-day conference that ended today. Republican loyalists said they were concerned about a lack of direction in the party and are looking for a successor worthy of the mantle of Ronald Reagan, whose name was invoked constantly by conference participants.

Many conference attendees said Republicans were taking more serious than ever the need to begin early to identify a qualified, inspirational leader who could unite the party. Last year, many predicted, was the last race the party would nominate a candidate based on seniority - a reference to the early lock Bob Dole had on the GOP nomination.

Duke Powell, 42, a paramedic from Burnsville, Minn., said: "The field's wide open. There is no front-runner. It's a new generation. We'll see who's going to be electable."

Ohio Treasurer Kenneth Blackwell, R, said the record turnout for the gathering here and the large number of national party figures in attendance was all the proof needed that the presidential campaign was underway. Normally, the conference draws fewer than 600 activists and little national media attention.