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GOP Race for President: A Year Away From Fray

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IT'S only February 1995, a year from the first primary in New Hampshire, and already the door to the White House has begun to shut in the face of Republican candidates.

To squeeze through that portal and still be around a year from now a candidate must be ready to dig up $20 million in campaign funds by the end of this year. That will be a crucial test on the way to raising $29 million altogether. When added to matching federal funds, the price tag on the White House should be about $44 million.

And there will be another prerequisite for candidates: An ability to endure two years of campaigning while the news media and your opponents look under the rug in every corner of your past for something with which to embarrass you.

Together, the money game and the loss of privacy make the prospect of running for president sound pretty unappealing. In fact, Republican Party strategist William Kristol recently suggested that ``You've got to be a little crazy'' to try it.

Last year former Education Secretary William Bennett, an intellectual godfather to many neoconservatives and an often-mentioned candidate, sized up the conditions and dropped out. More recently, two other Republicans with strong resumes joined him: Richard Cheney, a former Wyoming congressman and secretary of defense; and Jack Kemp, a former New York congressman and secretary of housing and urban development. Mr. Cheney's expertise was in foreign affairs, not likely to be the defining issue in 1996. Mr. Kemp, who carried the banner for innovation in the party in the 1980s, specifically cited the fund-raising hurdles in his decision to withdraw.

At least a dozen other names are still in play for the GOP nomination. But when New Hampshire Republicans go to the polls Feb. 20, 1996 (or even earlier, if needed, to remain the first primary), they may find only three or four names on the ballot.

The presidential campaign season continues to lengthen, to a point now where it is essentially perpetual. In 1992, Democratic candidate Paul Tsongas was able to start the primary season with little money and use a strong early showing in New Hampshire to unleash contributions; his long-shot candidacy kept up steam through several more primaries.

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