For Now, Bush Wants To 'Win Big' in Texas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 4, 1998; Page A01
DALLASWherever he goes, Texas Gov. George W. Bush wants to talk about his education agenda and a second term in the governor's mansion. His audiences want to know about the presidency.
It happened here in Dallas the other day, when the governor addressed the Newspaper Association of America, an organization of publishers whose editorial endorsements in 2000 might be handy to anyone interested in the White House.
Bush offered a spirited description of his education program, then agreed to take a few questions from the audience. Question one: "Have you talked to your mother [former first lady Barbara Bush] about the next presidential race?"
Bush was self-deprecating and noncommittal. "She said, 'You stay home and do the job you were elected to do, boy!' " he replied. "The truth is, I don't know whether or not I'm going to run for the presidency and won't know for quite a while. That's just something Texas voters will have to factor into their decision."
Six months before the November elections, Bush appears to be cruising toward reelection. But merely becoming the first governor in the state's history to win consecutive four-year terms isn't enough for the competitive son of a former president. "I want to win and I want to win big," he said in a recent interview.
Bush has much to prove with his reelection campaign beyond winning a second term. Republicans and Democrats around the country will be looking at the size of his victory margin and the length of his coattails, as well as the clarity and sophistication of his message, as they measure him for a possible presidential campaign.
He faces a political balancing act as he looks toward November. Bush hopes to stoke Republican turnout in hopes of pulling off a historic GOP sweep of the statewide constitutional offices in Texas even as he projects himself as a champion of bipartisanship who works comfortably with Democrats in the state legislature.
Bush is trying to demonstrate that a Republican candidate can reach out to moderate, swing voters without infuriating the conservative activists who now dominate his party. That effort underscores the current state of a Republican Party nationally that is dominated by grass-roots conservative activists but has seen its grip on the center of the electorate erode.
The unanswered question about Bush is whether he represents a return to the kinder, gentler conservatism of his father that often infuriated the party's right wing or a new hybrid that reflects the ideological changes within the party without losing sight of the middle of the electorate. As Paul Burka, a writer for Texas Monthly, put it: "What's he for? What's his agenda? What does this agenda tell us about how he will run for national office?"
Bush bristles at suggestions that, in putting together his agenda, he has borrowed heavily from President Clinton's centrist, small-bore playbook, and yet Bush emphasizes the same kinds of issues, from reading and educational standards to keeping guns out of the hands of teenage gang members.
He chalked up Clinton's domestic policy successes to the president's willingness "to try to sound like a governor." Conscious of where the balance of power rests inside his party, he said of his own agenda, "I don't think this is playing closer to the center."
The eldest son of former president George Bush was in Longview, Tex., recently to pick up the endorsement of a group of east Texas sheriffs. Most of them were Democrats, and Bush noted that their support symbolized the political evolution of the state of Texas and his bipartisan style of governing.
The sheriffs were arrayed behind Bush in a classic campaign photo op, most of them wearing white cowboy hats, boots and pistols on their belts. If ever a political event cried out for a tough anti-crime message, this was it. But when the inevitable question came from a reporter about the governor's plans for addressing crime, Bush offered up an answer rarely heard in Republican circles. "The best crime bill," he said, "is to teach every child to read."
Answers like this sometimes make Bush sound like a Republican Clinton, and his campaign ads trumpet the same values of "opportunity" and "responsibility" that were hallmarks of Clinton's presidential campaigns.
But Mark McKinnon, who worked for Democrats before joining the Bush campaign this year as media consultant, said that while Bush and Clinton use similar themes, there is an important distinction between the two. "There is a much heavier moral tone in what Bush is saying," he said.
Morality is a theme Bush often uses in his speeches, both in Texas and on his limited forays outside the state. As he put it in a speech at Texas A&M University last month, "It is clear today's challenge lies not so much outside of our borders as inside of our own souls."
Bush's principal education priority this year is to end the policy of promoting students to the next grade level before they are ready. "I think ending social promotions is a good conservative issue," Bush said, noting that he supports a phonics-based reading curriculum, local control of the schools and state accountability standards for both students and school districts.
Bush also is preparing an initiative designed to harness the moral suasion of state government to steer children away from drugs, alcohol and premarital sex. He talks repeatedly about the discouraging fact that nearly a third of Texas babies are born to single mothers.
Bush's education agenda has put him at odds with some grass-roots conservatives who favor fewer state controls. But on other issues important to Christian and pro-family conservatives, he has worked to foster warmer relations.
Susan Weddington, the Texas GOP state chairwoman who doesn't always agree with Bush, ticked off a series of social issue initiatives Bush has supported, from adoption policy to endorsement of a school voucher plan to his efforts so far unsuccessful to pass an abortion bill requiring parents to be notified in advance.
While acknowledging that perceptions of strained relations between Bush and some pro-family activists were real, she said, "I would not have dreamed we would have accomplished all these things."
Bush dismissed talk of strains on the right as the work of national Republicans posturing "for races other than those happening in 1998." He added, "I don't really care about the rumors in Washington and the labels."
Beyond education, the rest of Bush's second-term agenda seems a more modest copy of the first. He wants more progress on juvenile justice laws, welfare reform, tort reform and tax cuts although he has no appetite to replay the big tax fight of 1997 in which the legislature balked at his effort at comprehensive reform while passing a $1 billion cut in property taxes.
Bush has his benchmarks for the campaign. The first is to help elect a slate of all GOP candidates to the major statewide offices for the first time in history, largely by turning out as many Republican voters as possible. "His principle responsibility is to create a rising tide," one of his advisers said. "The better he does, the better everyone does."
The most important of these other races is the campaign for lieutenant governor. Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock (D) has announced his retirement and has endorsed Bush for reelection. The battle to succeed him pits Republican agriculture commissioner Rick Perry against Democratic comptroller John Sharp. The outcome of the race for one of the most powerful posts in Texas state government has clear implications for Bush's potential presidential aspirations.
But as important to Bush as his contribution to the continuing GOP realignment in Texas is his desire to prove that a Republican can reach beyond traditional party lines by winning a substantial share of the Hispanic vote. Four years ago, Bush captured 28 percent of Hispanic votes. His advisers hope he can expand that to at least 40 percent this year.
At a time when the Republicans have lost ground with Latino voters because of their anti-immigration policies, Bush said, "I think it's important for conservative people to break the mold." Moments later he added, "The stereotype in the press now is that Hispanics can't relate to the Republican Party and I don't believe that."
Bush's possible presidential campaign has become an issue in his gubernatorial campaign. His Democratic rival, land commissioner Garry Mauro, said he thinks Bush already is bored as governor. "The Texas voters have got to make a decision," he said. "Do we want a part-time governor?"
Mauro, focusing on health care and other issues, also wants to tag Bush as "out of touch" with ordinary people. "He doesn't have the same life experiences as most people in Texas."
At a time when other possible GOP presidential candidates are campaigning around the country, Bush has tried with limited success to foster the impression that he is not yet running. He has avoided high-profile trips to Iowa or New Hampshire and has skipped several early gatherings of 2000 would-bes. At one GOP event he attended, he did not particularly excite the crowd.
But the few out-of-state trips he has taken have been to strategically important places, such as South Carolina, site of an early and often crucial primary, and California, where he spent three days raising $500,000 and making a positive impression on Hollywood and Silicon Valley audiences.
One of his advisers said Bush's goal this year is to help "change the face of Texas and make it more Republican." Bush is content to attend to business at home, confident that if he pulls off that kind of victory in November, he will be ready to think about winning back the office his father lost to Bill Clinton in 1992.
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