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Bush To 'Explore' Candidacy

George W. Bush surrounded himself Sunday with a diverse group of high-profile Republicans to formally open the flirtation stage of his 2000 presidential campaign, reports CBS Correspondent Bob McNamara..

Dropping nearly all pretense of indecision, the Texas governor unveiled his presidential exploratory committee. "The one thing that would change my mind is if we just go out there and heard a loud thud," Bush said in a news conference attended by dozens of news organizations from around the world.

His 10-member exploratory committee includes three women, one of them black, one Hispanic man and one black man. Former Secretary of State George Shultz and former GOP chairman Haley Barbour added their establishment credentials to the group.

Bush, who answered one question in Spanish, promised a more inclusive GOP that " makes sure no one gets left behind."

Though Bush remains untested nationally, and has few answers on foreign policy, and national security issues, his landslide re-election last year, put him in the national spotlight. In the polls, Bush is ahead of all the other declared or undeclared candidates, including Vice-President Gore.

Still, in polls and politics, anything can happen. Twelve years ago at this time, Bush's father was the GOP front-runner. But he trailed Democrat Gary Hart by 13 points in the polls. Soon, though, Hart's campaign collapsed in a sex scandal.

Bush read a brief opening statement off a TelePrompTer and smoothly fielded most of the questions Sunday. He wavered when pressed for his views on abortion, saying the party should adopt a "pro-life tenor" and calling a question about first-trimester abortions "hypothetical." Bush also declined to give details about his positions on Kosovo or tax cuts.

"I'm honored to be a member of the Exploratory Committee and when we get through with all the exploring. The answer's got to be yes," said former Secretary of State George Schultz.

The announcement gives shape to a field of at least 10 Republicans. Lamar Alexander officially enters the campaign Tuesday and former American Red Cross President Elizabeth Dole will take the same baby step as Bush, forming her exploratory committee Wednesday.

Alexander, a former Tennessee governor, said the strong showings by Bush and Dole in polls could be fleeting. Bush, son of former President George Bush, and Dole, wife of 1996 GOP nominee Bob Dole, benefit from name recognition, he said.

Bush, 52, has held elective office just four years and seven weeks. He has not raised a dime as a presidential candidate. He has not trudged through the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire, begging for votes on the chicken-and-peas circuit with fellow contenders.

Yet he is nurturing an aura of inevitability, leading in polls over the most likely Democratic nominee, Vice President Al Gore. Republican lawmakers from 14 states have urged Bush to run, with more to follow. At least 80 congressioal Republicans have pledged support. And 16 Republican governors, a majority of the 31 GOP state executives, have signed up.

"His approval ratings right now are just astronomical and the Republican Party is rallying to him in an extrordinary way," says Southern Methodist University political science professor Cal Jillson. "So really he has the opportunity to set the agenda."

This Bush bandwagon was built with tools he inherited, including his father's name, his state's political pull and his party's problems. But it also is the result of careful planning to maximize his luck.

The blueprints were made months before the 1996 campaign, when the Bush team designed a re-election strategy that could blend seamlessly into a presidential bid. Bush was not certain he wanted to run for president, but certainly wanted the option open.

He won re-election in a landslide, securing unprecedented support from women, independents and minorities. The results impressed Republicans trying to broaden the party's appeal beyond anti-tax, anti-abortion, anti-Clinton activists.

His announcement Sunday marks the beginning of tougher times for Bush, as he starts dealing with the hard issues of a campaign.