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  •   Bush: The Stay-at-Home Campaigner

    By Dan Balz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, May 9, 1999; Page A3

    Texas Gov. George W. Bush's front-porch campaign has returned handsome dividends this year in endorsements, contributions and poll numbers. But for all its advantages, Bush may come to regret spending the winter and spring holed up in Austin.

    The notion that Bush's strategy of running for president from the governor's mansion may prove a mixed blessing runs counter to available evidence. Even strategists for other Republican presidential candidates marvel at how effectively Bush has dominated the first phase of Campaign 2000 without leaving home.

    But some supporters worry about the next phase of the campaign--when Bush leaves the cozy atmosphere of Austin for events in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere. For beyond the endorsements and the money he has collected, the man who many in the GOP establishment have embraced as the person who can lead them back to the White House has appeared less dominating.

    In Texas, Bush is struggling to preserve his legislative agenda, which includes $2.6 billion in proposed tax cuts, a pilot school voucher program and a plan to end "social promotion" in schools. Nationally, he has drawn mixed reviews on handling the two biggest issues of the spring: Kosovo and the school shootings in Littleton, Colo.

    Bush advisers say he is not a formal candidate and should not be expected to act like one. But the strategy raises questions that will have to be answered after Bush begins active campaigning:

    Is he substantively ready for the rigors of a presidential campaign? Will his campaign be conventional or cutting-edge when it comes to ideas and policy? Has Bush's tight Texas focus limited his understanding of the country and the world, or his vision of what he wants to do as president?

    "The people of Texas have learned that Governor Bush is a bold and decisive leader," said Karen Hughes, Bush's press secretary. "What he has done here is campaign on a specific set of reforms. He has laid them out in his campaigns and then implemented them when elected."

    Hughes challenged assertions that, on Kosovo, Bush was slower than several other GOP presidential prospects to stake out a clear position. But one Bush ally, who asked not to be identified, said the Texas governor's remarks on Kosovo were "viewed as substantively weak," even by those sympathetic to him.

    Bush since has embraced an aggressive position similar to the views of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a rival for the GOP nomination. Bush's performance on Kosovo, said a supporter, "shook up a lot of people."

    Kosovo policy also has opened up a sharp division between Bush and congressional Republicans, even though almost half of House Republicans have endorsed his candidacy and some have suggested recently there is close coordination with Austin on developing a common policy agenda.

    On April 28, most House Republicans voted to prohibit President Clinton from introducing ground forces in the Kosovo conflict without congressional approval, and later voted not to endorse U.S. and NATO airstrikes. Both positions run counter to Bush's views, although many House Republicans appeared unaware of that, or unconcerned about it, at the time.

    Rep. Roy Blunt (Mo.), one of several House Republicans at the top of Bush's presidential exploratory committee and the governor's point man in the House, said there was "zero" coordination with Austin on Kosovo.

    Hughes called such consultation "premature," adding that such coordination "is more appropriate once there is a nominee."

    After the Littleton shootings, Bush endorsed some limited gun control measures, including instant background checks for buyers at gun shows. But his statement of support for that approach came after a Texas House committee had killed a bill doing just that. Texas newspapers reported that Bush had not attempted to lobby for the bill before it was killed.

    Hughes said Bush had supported background checks at gun shows for five years, but believed the legislation in Texas was unworkable. She said he favors changing federal law.

    Unlike Vice President Gore and several GOP presidential candidates, Bush has done little to use alarm over the tragedy in Colorado to help frame a national debate over children and violence and how to prevent future Littletons from occurring.

    "Kosovo and Littleton are two issues that are classic instances where you look up and say, what does the leader of our party have to say?" said William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard. "At some point, Bush will start to pay a price for his absence on both of them."

    There's no hard evidence that any of this has hurt Bush politically. But at a minimum, Bush's performance has raised the stakes for him when he begins active campaigning. "The few missteps he made he can correct when he starts campaigning," one Republican strategist said. "What he can't do is make the same mistakes that he was making during the front-porch time. He doesn't have the excuse that he's mired in Texas."

    Bush advisers say they worry most about the high expectations the governor and his front-porch strategy have created. His money and support have lent his candidacy an aura that surpasses what even his biggest fans believe he can deliver.

    Compounding the problem is Bush's lack of practice as a candidate. Like all presidential aspirants, Bush faces a shakedown cruise as a campaigner. But he will be expected to go from standing start to full speed under the intense media glare afforded anyone who claims the front-runner's mantle.

    Bush may attempt to defer a formal candidacy as long as possible to gain a margin of error. But other campaigns will be gunning for him. An early organizational test will come in August, when Iowa Republicans hold a straw poll in Ames. Bush's advisers, knowing that a loss there will tarnish his candidacy, have been discussing whether he can afford to skip the event.

    Other Republicans scoff at that idea. "No reporter is going to give him a pass if he doesn't win in Ames," said a strategist with another campaign.

    Ideally a presidential candidate facing his first period of intensive campaigning would prefer the luxury of being able to focus on getting ready. But over the next month, Bush's focus will be on legislative matters in Austin. The Texas Legislature's biennial session ends May 31, and key elements of the governor's agenda are in flux.

    The crown jewel for Bush is a big tax cut. He wanted $2.6 billion in cuts and now has scaled that back to $2 billion. Texas legislators so far have offered far less and want to put more money into education, particularly for teacher salaries. Texas analysts say there is little public clamor for the kind of tax cut Bush is advocating, but the governor's political allies want him to have it to burnish his conservative credentials for the primaries ahead.

    There could be a simple resolution if the Texas comptroller increases the size of the estimated state surplus within the next few weeks, as is widely assumed she will do. But Bush will face hard bargaining if the increase is not overly generous.

    Beyond that, Bush appears unlikely to win support for his modest school voucher plan, though his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, just won approval for a much larger, statewide voucher plan, in his first legislative session.

    The Texas governor objects to suggestions that he has not lobbied as hard for the voucher plan as his brother did in Florida. But if he plans to promote a Texas model of bipartisan cooperation in governing, he may have to explain why he couldn't get his way at home on vouchers.

    Hughes said Bush's "primary responsibility this spring is to be the governor of Texas" and that he sees the summer "as a time to go out and meet with people around the country."

    Bush has the rest of the month to enjoy the fruits of the front-porch strategy, but as Marshall Wittmann of the Heritage Foundation said: "You can delay the moment of reckoning, but you can't cancel it. Right now delay works for him, but ultimately he's not going to be able to cancel it."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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