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  Bush Answering Big Question

By Ron Fournier
AP Political Writer
Sunday, Oct. 3, 1999; 12:23 p.m. EDT

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. –– It started with a single voice echoing off the cement courtyard, then swelled to a chorus of first-graders repeating the same question. "Who is George Bush?"

Queued in a wiggly line, the College Heights Elementary School students were curious about George – the campaigning Texan whose visit had prompted an extra recess.

"Who is George Bush?" the giggling children chanted in singsong voices. "Who is George Bush?"

It is a question their elders soon may need answered about the man far ahead of the field for the Republican presidential nomination, and leading the polls for the White House election 13 months away.

Bush himself appears in no hurry to fill in the blanks.

Pressed on policy, the two-term governor says he will provide answers on his own timetable. He has dealt with education and defense plans in a Bush administration. Taxes and other installments to come, he says, and abruptly refuses to talk about them yet.

He is a likable, playful, funny man with a knack for putting people at ease in social settings, though he can be abrupt when the occasion is more serious.

He says he is a humble man. "If the people don't want me to be president, so be it," he says, with variations, when asked about his prospects. But there also is a Texas swagger in his style.

"I'm doing pretty well," he grinned to reporters in San Jose, Calif., of the record $56 million his campaign has raised this year. No gloating; no need – the numbers are there.

Bush, no ornate orator, is at his campaign best with small groups of voters and their families. He likes to gently rib people, making them feel they are in on the joke.

At a Grand Rapids, Mich., school, he asked for a show of hands among third-graders: How many good readers?

All 25 raise their hands. "Tell the truth!" Bush chides, drawing guilty giggles from the children.

When situations get more serious, so does Bush.

His eyes were moist with tears as he left a campaign tour in Michigan to return to the site of the Sept. 15 shootings at a Fort Worth, Texas, church. And he sometimes speaks emotionally about his father, especially when it comes to his 1992 loss to President Clinton.

It was a "death by a thousand cuts," says Bush, who was an adviser to his father in 1992.

That campaign left the younger Bush with his own scars. When a questioning reporter interrupts a monologue, Bush often counters with a dagger stare and a snap. "Ah, ah," he'll say, and insisting on finishing.

When the questions are repeated attempts to get at something he does not want to address, he shuts them down. "I gave you my answer," he snaps.

But no candidate takes more questions. In nearly every city he visits, Bush meets with reporters in open-ended sessions that last 15 to 30 minutes. He also holds lengthy one-on-one sessions with journalists.

During his trip to California and Michigan, the governor conducted three news conferences in three days. He answered more than 30 questions about 14 issues – guns, missile defenses, the Pat Buchanan threat, Y2K among them.

He can deliver a quick response, as in his criticism of the House Republican plan to delay payments to the working poor to save money in the 2000 budget. Bush said they should not be trying to balance the budget on the backs of the poor.

House GOP leaders did not like it. But Bush is not playing to them; the votes he needs now are in the primary election states.

There have been missteps. He mishandled explanations about his abortion record early in the campaign and, this summer, questions about whether he had ever used illegal drugs.

Indeed, most of Bush's answers in recent days were well-practiced lines worded broadly enough to keep him out of trouble.

Like Clinton, Bush has a knack for offering something to both sides both sides of an argument. He says he is for an increase in the minimum wage (a Democratic cause), but only if states can opt out of it (succor for the GOP).

That chanted schoolyard question still is unanswered.

© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press

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