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  •   Bush Keeps Observers Guessing About 2000

    George Bush, AP
    Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) waves to the crowd during the inaugural parade Tuesday in Austin, Tex. (AP)
    By Paul Duggan
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, January 20, 1999; Page

    AUSTIN, Jan. 19 – Having long campaigned as a "compassionate conservative," Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) continued that message in his inaugural address today, offering his broad vision of a state government that fosters self-reliance with a gentle, loving hand.

    But as Bush, 52, became the first Texas governor to embark on a second consecutive four-year term, he left unanswered a question that hung in the warm Austin air during a sun-splashed afternoon of pomp and celebration: Will he finish his term or run for president in 2000?

    Even in the absence of a decision by Bush about a White House bid, planning for a possible campaign has accelerated significantly since his November reelection.

    Aides to the governor said he might form a presidential exploratory committee by early spring, unless he has made a firm decision not to run. "In March or so, if the answer is anything other than 'absolutely not,' he's going to let something go forward," one Bush adviser said.

    Today, Bush spoke of Texas's future – a future based not only on economic prosperity but also on moral values.

    "To achieve prosperity with a moral and spiritual center," he said, "I believe that the Texas of tomorrow must be open, educated and, while diverse, united by common Texas values," he said, addressing a cheering crowd of several thousand on the State Capitol's vast south lawn.

    Bush said that children must be taught the difference between right and wrong. "Some people think it's inappropriate to make moral judgments any more. Not me," he declared.

    Of the White House, he had nothing to say. "Governor! Governor!" a reporter shouted outside the First United Methodist Church here this morning, where Bush began his day, peppered yet again with queries about his status as the early front-runner for the GOP's 2000 presidential nomination. "There are people who say that more than the eyes of Texas are upon you today."

    To which Bush flashed a well-practiced, noncommittal grin. "Well, I understand all this speculation," he said, before entering the church with his wife, Laura, and their twin 17-year-old daughters for a prayer service. "I'm honored that people would be speculating. But my head and my heart are right here," Bush said, meaning Texas.

    And so it went, again, for Texas's hugely popular chief executive, another day of amiably fending off questions about 2000 while sounding the themes of inclusion, compassion and helpful-but-limited government that supporters hope will help carry him to the White House.

    "Our [ethnic] diversity gives Texas new life, new energy, new blood, and we should not fear it, but welcome it," Bush said. Then, as he often does, he repeated the declaration in Spanish.

    "This renewal will continue," he said, "if government respects individuals, does not tax them too much, and does not try to do for them what they ought to do for themselves."

    It was Bush's only mention of taxes, and he made no detailed references to his goals for the legislative session, which opened Jan. 12. With the 140-day session likely to be dominated by debate over what to do with an estimated $5.6 billion budget surplus, Bush has said he will push for property tax relief, cuts in certain sales and business taxes, and more state aid to education.

    How he fares is almost certain to be viewed through the prism of the 2000 presidential campaign.

    Establishing an exploratory committee would represent a shift in Bush's timetable and would allow his operatives to continue the process of gearing up for a presidential campaign without running afoul of federal election laws. Aides said they expect Bush to make a final decision about running in April or May, with a formal announcement coming later, after the legislative session ends.

    Bush advisers cautioned, however, that he might decide not to run. And Bush told the Dallas Morning News this week that his wife is "reluctant" to subject her family to the scrutiny of a national campaign. But he also said that his wife does not have veto power over his decision.

    Bush has no plans for out-of-state political travel during the legislative session, meaning no trips to Iowa or New Hampshire this winter or spring. But he has been meeting regularly with potential fund-raisers, policy experts, politicians and political operatives as he weighs a candidacy. The meetings with fund-raisers and politicians, aides said, have come in part at the request of the participants.

    Aides said the fund-raising meetings so far have included potential donors from California, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Maryland, Florida, Alabama, Oklahoma, Colorado and Utah. On Thursday, he is to meet with fund-raisers from Florida, where his brother Jeb recently was sworn in as governor.

    His meetings with policy analysts began before his reelection, with Bush seeking advice from such experts as former secretary of state George P. Shultz, former defense secretary Richard B. Cheney, former Council of Economic Advisers chairman Michael J. Boskin, former White House domestic policy adviser Martin Anderson and others.

    In today's speech, the governor alluded to his hope of ending "social promotions" in Texas elementary schools by requiring pupils in certain grades to pass a standardized test before advancing – an plan opposed by some minority groups and urban legislators.

    He plans to outline his legislative goals in his forthcoming State of the State Address. Among other proposals, Bush has said he supports a limited program allowing parents to use tax dollars for private-school tuition, a popular concept among social conservatives.

    Some House and Senate leaders have voiced doubts about Bush's legislative agenda. But whatever lies ahead for the governor, today was a day for optimism.

    "My fellow Texans, as we head into the new century, Texas lives on the sunrise side of the mountain," Bush concluded, with his parents, former president George Bush and Barbara Bush looking on. "And I see a very good day coming."

    Staff writer Dan Balz contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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