Texan Ambushed on the Trail
By Dana Milbank
The Bush campaign had choreographed everything just so at the Elizabethport Presbyterian Center. A homemade banner on the wall welcomed Governor Bush, who had come to talk with community leaders about after-school programs. Another banner, Bush's own, contained his campaign theme, "No Child Left Behind."
Like dozens of other Bush events, this one was designed to show the governor going where no Republican has gone before, into poor minority communities with his compassionate conservative message. But today there was a wrinkle. Seated at Bush's right hand was the center's first director, an African American minister named the Rev. Joseph Garlic. Bush tried to season the discussion with Garlic. "How did you get the vision, Rev. Garlic?" the governor asked.
The wily Garlic, however, used his forum in front of the TV cameras to turn on Bush and ask a question he "may find a little sensitive." Garlic began by inquiring about Bush's visit to the NAACP this week, and Bush gave a stirring response. "People hear the word 'Republican' and think he doesn't care, particularly white-guy Republican," Bush said. But not the Texas governor. "I'll become the president of everybody." Bush thought he hit it out of the park; in fact, he had stepped into a trap.
Garlic roasted him with a question about the execution of Gary Graham, which Bush recently condoned in Texas. "You missed an opportunity to show some of this compassion and to show some of this new Republican spirit," Garlic lectured, as Bush aides stared at their toes and reporters began scribbling. "You trust the criminal justice system," Garlic said, even though it's "not always fair" to minorities.
Checkmate. "I support the death penalty because I think it saves lives," Bush ventured. "This isn't a political decision to me, Reverend. If it costs me votes, so be it."
Garlic pounced. "With all due respect, sir, that is not a good enough answer," he said. "The issue was the doubt concerning the man's conviction. . . . While you may say to me this was not a political decision, this was definitely not a moral decision."
Bush knew he was licked. "We just disagree," he said quietly.
When the event ended, giddy reporters reached for their cell phones to call their editors. Unscripted news on the Bush campaign. A thick scrum of reporters crowded around Garlic the Conqueror after Bush left the room with his tail between his legs. "They never told me I couldn't say anything I wanted to say," Garlic declared.
Lost was the actual news Bush intended to make this morning: a proposed $400 million annual program to aid after-school programs such as the kind the center runs.
For Bush, it was a day to dine with New Yorkers. New York Gov. George E. Pataki showed up at Bush's New Jersey hotel for a private breakfast, fueling more vice presidential speculation. Then it was lunch with Rep. Rick Lazio at a New York State Conservative Party lunch in Manhattan--and then another lunch, this one private, again with Pataki.
The Conservative luncheon was to promote Lazio's candidacy. But Pataki, who isn't up for election, got most of the glory. Lazio didn't get a moment at the podium with Bush, depriving the Senate candidate of a crucial photo op, which Pataki got. "I think the world of George Pataki," Bush said at the Conservative lunch. "He's a friend."
On this day of miscues, even the predictable Conservative Party gathering didn't quite follow the script. In the middle of Bush's talk, two demonstrators, protesting (what else?) the Graham execution, unfurled signs and started shouting at Bush to "stop the racist executions."
Perhaps it was the stress of the Graham ambushes, but Bush, normally able to connect with everybody, was slightly off his game today. In the Elizabeth event, Bush was trying to draw one of his fellow panelists, Hon. DeForest Soaries Jr., New Jersey's secretary of state. But when he turned to Soaries, he said, "You might want to comment on that, Honorable."
Bush also employed a series of remarks oddly reminiscent of the butcher shop. When talking about how he was a different kind of Republican, he described himself as a "different cut." Possibly New York strip. At another point, he said: "I want people to see a piece of my heart."
Bush resumed his meaty theme at lunch. Bush declared that Lazio, if he defeats Hillary Rodham Clinton in their Senate race, will become "a steak in history" (or maybe he meant "stake").
Lazio, in his address to the Conservative Party, was also partaking in the theme. "Governor," he said at one point, "I can taste it." Presumably, both men were thinking about the absence of beef on the lunch menu. It was a red-meat conservative crowd, but they had to settle for chicken Caesar salad.
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