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Hill's new agenda-setter: Bush

GOP lawmakers commit early - and strongly - to Bush, backing his

As Texas Gov. George Bush heads out this month to "test the water" for a presidential run, he can forget the toe-dipping and plunge right in at one stop: Capitol Hill.

Publicly endorsed by 117 House members and 10 senators, and privately by several more, Mr. Bush enjoys support among congressional Republicans that is outright toasty - and historically unprecedented, say GOP lawmakers and staff. Never before, they say, have so many in Congress backed a nonincumbent Republican presidential candidate so long before the campaign.

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"People realize that [Bush] has the right stuff," says Rep. Henry Bonilla (R) of Texas, one of five House members on Bush's presidential exploratory committee.

And the support goes well beyond words. Republican lawmakers are assisting Bush in crafting a 2000 agenda, raising campaign funds, and mobilizing local organizations to back him in coming presidential primaries, GOP lawmakers and advisers say.

By working closely with Congress, the Bush campaign seeks to develop "a governing strategy ... that goes beyond the election," says House chief deputy whip Roy Blunt (R) of Missouri, Bush's point man in the House.

Yet to some, the enthusiasm for Bush - before he's even left the front porch - says as much about the predicament of Republicans in Congress as it does about the qualifications of the Texas governor with a famous last name.

After a stinging electoral setback in the 1998 midterm elections that cut the GOP's House margin to five seats, "a lot of [Republicans] look to Bush as someone who will save them in 2000," says Marshall Wittmann, at the Heritage Foundation here.

Lawmakers admit as much. "We want to win. We want the White House back. And Bush is the clear front-runner," says Rep. Fred Upton (R) of Michigan.

Moreover, the factionalized GOP majority is pinning its hopes on Bush as a Reaganesque "great communicator" who can advance Republican ideas in a way that unifies rather than polarizes. He "has an ability to connect people with our conservative message," says Representative Bonilla.

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By rallying early around Bush, Republicans say they also seek to avoid major missteps from the 1996 presidential race, when most GOP presidential hopefuls ended up campaigning against the Republican-led Congress.

"One of the lessons of 1996 was that nobody benefited," says Representative Blunt. "Bush is not the kind of candidate who will look for opportunities to run against the Republican Congress." On the contrary, the Bush campaign has appeared eager to take advantage of broad-based congressional support.

A week before announcing his exploratory committee in March, Bush telephoned Blunt to enlist him for the job of "organizing the House," as Blunt puts it. The committee also includes Senate GOP conference secretary Sen. Paul Coverdell of Georgia and House Republican Conference chairman Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma. Also backing Bush is the powerful House majority whip Tom DeLay and most of his deputy whips.

Such solid endorsements have paved the way for an unusually extensive cooperation between Bush and Republicans on crafting a 2000 agenda, say GOP lawmakers and advisers.

"The level of coordination and cooperation largely surrounds that fact that you have so many members supporting [Bush]," says a GOP strategist.

Lawmakers are increasingly adopting elements of the Bush message. For example, the emphasis on ending the educational practice of "social promotion," or automatic grade-by-grade advancement, will be "added to the lexicon of many Republican candidates," Blunt says, adding that the Bush mantra of compassionate conservatism will lead Republicans to become "more innovative in their thoughts on how you don't leave anyone behind."

Meanwhile, in frequent phone consultations and meetings, the Bush camp is turning to GOP lawmakers and their staff to hash out national agenda issues ranging from education reform to juvenile justice and foreign affairs, both sides say.

On agenda tactics, congressional supporters are trying to avoid negative, high-profile legislative battles and, as one GOP strategist says, "keep the trains running with a minimalist agenda" to allow Bush to define the agenda during the campaign.

Fund-raising is another key aspect, with Washington lawmakers and lobbyists signing on in significant numbers to help funnel money to the Bush campaign.

GOP lawmakers are already campaigning for Bush, making "surrogate" public appearances on his behalf. Representatives Watts, Bonilla, and Jennifer Dunn of Washington, for example, say they are promoting Bush's appeal among minorities and women, respectively.

Lawmakers are also mobilizing local organizations to back Bush in primaries, for example in Iowa where support from the state's entire GOP congressional delegation could prove a critical asset, Blunt says.

Some, however, suggest that such a close alliance with congressional Republicans could hurt Bush, an idea that Bush supporters on Capitol Hill reject.

Yet last week Bush made a clear effort to distance himself from the intense partisanship plaguing Washington, pledging he would work to "change the tone."

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