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  •   Bush in 2000?

    By David S. Broder
    Sunday, October 18, 1998; Page C07

    AUSTIN, Texas—"I feel like a cork on a raging river," said Texas Gov. George W. Bush, pushing back his dessert plate and looking not at all displeased at the situation he described. "This has been a surprise to the five of us sitting here," meaning his wife, Laura, and three top political aides. "No one anticipated the speculation or the poll numbers" suggesting he has more early support for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 than anyone else.

    This was only in part an "aw shucks" performance by the former president's son. Four years ago this month, Bush was the managing partner of a mediocre Texas Rangers baseball team and a loser in his only political race, for the House of Representatives, going up against a seemingly popular Democratic incumbent, Gov. Ann Richards.

    But after beating Richards and completing a successful first term, Bush is basking in a Mason-Dixon poll -- among many others -- that shows him with a 70 percent to 24 percent lead over Democrat Garry Mauro in his bid for reelection, winning 53 percent of the Hispanic vote and cutting deeply into other Democratic constituencies.

    Clearly he is on a roll that very likely will carry him full-tilt into presidential politics next year. Bush says he will make a final decision early in 1999, after he has launched his second-term program in the legislature and has talked more with his family about "the huge lifestyle changes" a presidential race would entail.

    But it seems a mere formality. Laura Bush, an effective campaigner who is featured in many of his TV ads, appeared entirely comfortable as her husband discussed the logistics of a possible White House contest. Their twin daughters, 16 now and headed for college in 2000, "will be good soldiers if I decide to run," Bush said, "but they won't like it."

    "I'm interested" in being president, he said, "or I would have said no" to the possibility before this. "I really made the decision to be in the hunt when I announced for reelection" and told Texas voters he would decide only later whether to seek the presidency.

    Those voters could still throw him a curve by choosing Democrat John Sharp over Republican Rick Perry for lieutenant governor on Nov. 3. The office is elected separately in Texas, and Sharp, the state comptroller, is better known than Perry, the agriculture commissioner.

    No one knows how much the prospect of having a Democrat in line of succession to the governorship would bother Bush's Texas financial backers, but clearly he would be more comfortable if Perry could pull out the race. President Bush is on the air with TV spots praising Perry. Karl Rove, the governor's political consultant, has orchestrated a huge and expensive voter registration and turnout campaign, targeted to fast-growing suburban counties, which Bush hopes will provide a coattail boost for Perry and other statewide GOP candidates.

    Meantime, he is getting his ducks in a row. He has raised money for more than a dozen Republican gubernatorial candidates (including brother Jeb, a likely winner in Florida) and constantly chats them up on the status of their campaigns, recognizing them as a natural base of support. He has entertained most of the other hopefuls and has something good to say about almost all of them except Steve Forbes, who could be his biggest threat, with unlimited personal funds and new allies in the Christian right.

    And a double metaphor is beginning to appear in Bush's conversation, suggesting how his personal and political experience might be used in a national campaign.

    On the personal side, he describes himself as someone who "when I was young, did some foolish things" but has been "a loyal husband of 21 years and a dedicated dad." Bush won't say what those "foolish things" were but says they weren't "serious enough to disqualify me from office." He claims his bachelor past, when he admittedly was a heavy drinker, already has been thoroughly examined by Texas reporters and political foes but is resigned to more such probing. In a clear allusion to the Clinton scandals, he says the test for "us baby boomers is whether we have gained the maturity" expected of leaders -- "and I think I've demonstrated that."

    On the political side, he presents himself as a unifying figure, citing his success with the Democratic legislature in passing major reforms in education, welfare, juvenile justice and other fields. People are tired of "the zero-sum attitude of Washington, the attitude that if we win, you lose," he says.

    In that, as in other things, his instincts and his timing may be right.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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