Bauer Announces Today for President

Chuck Raasch, Gannett News Service

April 21, 1999 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Blogger Tumblr

(WASHINGTON, DC) – If Gary Bauer has his way, Republicans are headed for confrontation, not coronation.

Mr. Bauer, 52, a diminutive, soft-spoken veteran of religious-right politics, will announce today in his hometown of Newport, that he is running for president.

He is a long shot, and knows it. At least half the 10 or so GOP candidates in next year's primaries will be fighting for votes from religious conservatives. Mr. Bauer hopes an unabashedly combative strategy will set him apart.

Front-runners such as Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole have begun arguing the GOP ought to soften its stand on such contentious issues as abortion. But for Mr. Bauer – former head of the conservative Family Research Council – it's all or nothing.

He loudly and unapologetically declares opposition to abortion and gay rights, two issues that have strained his party in the 1990s. His get-tough call on trade with China over human rights violations runs contrary to many in his party, as does his reluctance to privatize Social Security.

Mr. Bauer, arguing that abortion is to the 20th century what slavery was to the 19th, says that despite calls for a warm and fuzzy primary season next year, Republicans ought not to shy away from fights on those or any other issue.

"As long as our party establishment acts defensive and hesitant about these things, the debate will remain in our party instead of becoming a real clear distinction between us and the Democrats," he told Gannett News Service.

Mr. Bauer will run to the right, but not always with the grain.

Unlike some conservatives, he believes that government is not the root of all evil, and that politics is the proper forum for the values debate. He has been willing to align with liberals, joining with actor Richard Gere to oppose China's human rights record, for instance. This month, he met with union officials to protest closing of a GM plant in Michigan while a new one is opened in China.

"As a conservative, I do want to cut back the growth of government," Mr. Bauer said. "I do believe in lower taxes. But I am not some sort of doctrinaire libertarian that thinks that government can somehow be made to disappear. And I do believe that government can be used for good purposes, but a lot more selective than we have been in the last 30 years in making government grow."

Mr. Bauer got involved in politics as a teen-age reformer. In the 1950s and 1960s, Newport was known as "sin city" for prostitution, gambling and organized crime.

Mr. Bauer went door-to-door for a slate of political reformers. They won, and cleaned house. It had been a crusade. Morality had been legislated right in his back yard.

"I did start forming very early this belief that virtue and liberty had to go together," he said.

Mr. Bauer got a law degree, then became a top domestic policy adviser under President Reagan. He was known to push hard-right turns on issues such as AIDS, sometimes against the wishes of then-First Lady Nancy Reagan. After Mr. Reagan, Mr. Bauer ran the Family Research Council (FRC), a rival to the Christian Coalition.

Mr. Bauer dismissed talk by New Right guru Paul Weyrich and others that the culture wars are over, that America has gone too far down a permissive and Godless road, and that politics no longer is a means to address what they think ails the Ameri can soul.

"I have seen these memos and letters and so forth, and in due respect to their authors, they are defeatist, and I just don't think that leadership should be pessimistic," Mr. Bauer said.

"My eight years with Reagan cured me of pessimism. I think that we have got to be in the arena and we have got to be putting in our views on everything from racial reconciliation to foreign policy and other issues."

Through March, he had raised nearly $3 million for his campaign, including federal matching funds. Some think he could raise a hefty campaign war chest from a list of 90,000 financial backers at the FRC.

But while rivals such as Mr. Bush will be able to gobble up donations in $1,000 chunks, and the billionaire publisher Steve Forbes can pay his own way, Mr. Bauer's operation will be far more dependent on more costly direct-mail and telephone solicitations of smaller amounts.

Mr. Bauer says he is in the race to win, but some think his real motive is not to be president but to imitate Pat Robertson's religious crusade of 1988. Mr. Robertson scared then- Vice President George Bush in the early primaries that year, but lost the nomination. But Mr. Robertson used his showing as a launching pad to build the Christian Coalition and deepen his base of political donors.

Rich Tafel, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, a group representing gay Republicans, said he thinks Mr. Bauer "is motivated by what he saw Pat Robertson do at building a donor base, and that is what is driving him."

Mr. Tafel, who often battles with Mr. Bauer over gay rights, said he fears Mr. Bauer's rhetoric on a presidential stage will give critics more ammunition to say the party is still ruled by the GOP right.

"But I think he may serve a purpose in the race for moderate Republican candidates, who can move away from him and distance themselves from him," Mr. Tafel said.

"It is obviously an underdog candidacy," Mr. Bauer said. "I am not delusional about that, but I think we have a chance to surprise people."

Mr. Bush and Mrs. Dole recently have said that while they oppose abortion, it is not realistic to think a human-life amendment will happen overnight, they say, even with a GOP president who believes in it. They advocate an incremental approach.

But Mr. Bauer said the problem was not excessive fighting among Republican presidential candidates, but reluctance by the party's nominee to take that abortion fight to the Democrats.

Bauer strategist Jeff Bell said Mr. Bauer hopes to win an "informal demolition derby" among cultural conservatives early in the primaries, and then become the conservative alternative to whichever establishment candidate emerges.

What are his chances? In a wide field, the chances are not great, some experts say.

"I think that the great difficulty he faces is he is just another brand name among a half-dozen others, and the question is how does he differentiate himself," said Marshall Wittmann, director of government relations at the Heritage Foundation.