(Omaha, Nebraska) Four Republican presidential candidates gathered Saturday to talk with more than 850 Midwest Republicans attending a Leadership Conference in Omaha.
But during news conferences with reporters, all four — Lamar Alexander, Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes and Alan Keyes — talked about the front-runner in the race, George W. Bush, criticizing him for declining yet another invitation to appear at a party function and share his views on issues.
Keyes said Bush was showing “the utmost contempt” for voters.
“This is supposed to be a government of the people, by the people, for the people. There are some folks now who think they are going to turn it into an oligarchy in which our decisions are made by money, dictated by power,” Keyes told reporters.
Keyes said Bush’s early campaign success is a symptom of the “crisis” in the country.
“A crisis of arrogance, a crisis of those who believe that they are going to usurp the votes of our people…and in that arrogance now they spit in the face of ordinary voters, believe that having been crowned by whatever moneybags there are in America, they can turn their backs on the electoral process. I think that’s a real danger to our republic,” Keyes said.
Bauer said he hoped rank-and-file Republicans were becoming disenchanted with Bush’s reluctance to debate the issues with his Republican opponents.
“If those of us that are vying for the Republican presidential nomination are hesitant to confront each other about the direction of the party, then how in the world do we beat Al Gore?” Bauer said. “Our frontrunner has views on issues that are quite different from where the party has gone in the past. We need to debate about those things and I would encourage him, however much he likes Austin, Texas, to come to events like this and give Republican voters, Republican leaders a chance to take the measure of him, not just how well he flips a pancake or whatever but what he actually thinks about some of the great issues facing the country.”
Another candidate, Lamar Alexander, proposed a “12th commandment” for the remainder of the republican presidential race.
“When picking a President, thou shalt have a contest and the contest shall be on the issues,” Alexander said. “Too many observers, those in the media and those with big money, have said that the Republican race is over, principally because one of the (candidates) has raised a pile of money.”
Alexander said without a feisty primary contest, the Republican party was in danger of nominating a candidate who was not prepared for a general election contest against Vice President Al Gore, the front-runner for the Democrat Party’s presidential nomination.
“Then we get 16 years of Clinton/Gore and maybe eight of Hillary after that,” Alexander said.
Magazine publisher Steve Forbes suggested Bush is not ready to be challenged by a debate over issues with the other candidates.
“Ultimately you win, not by being anointed by the elites in Washington and the lobbyists…the way you do it is by taking your message to the people,” Forbes said.
However, Ohio Congressman John Kasich, who just one month ago was a candidate for the presidency himself, said the “stars are aligned” to nominate Bush. Kasich said many G.O.P. leaders hope to avoid a messy primary in order to win the White House.
“This is a chance to get the Clinton/Gore team and erase it,” Kasich told reporters during a Saturday morning news conference in Omaha.
Kasich dismissed the comments of Bush’s competitors, saying it just isn’t their time.”
“It’s like criticizing Mark McGwire today, you know, Bush’s campaign is going terrific,” Kasich said. “Somebody was telling me in New Hampshire this morning that (Bush) goes up there in his blazer and they rip the buttons off of his coat.”
Organizers of the Omaha conference issued invitations to all the candidates, including Bush, but found themselves with a line-up of six on Friday night. That dwindled to four by Saturday morning.
“I guess we should still feel lucky that we have four of the bunch,” said Bev Smith, executive director of the Nebraska G.O.P.
Dan Quayle dropped out at the last moment due to a family emergency, according to Smith, and Pat Buchanan decided to walk a parade route in a small, central Iowa town instead.
“It’s a little disappointed because (Buchanan) had confirmed three months ago,” Smith said.
Elizabeth Dole, John McCain and Orrin Hatch also declined the invitation to appear at the G.O.P. event.