When they talk about George W. Bush in Texas, it's the man and not his deep thoughts they dwell on. He "brings people together," says a businessman at a community college rally. He's "an inspiration," proclaims a Fort Worth woman. "Down to earth," asserts an official in Grapevine, who declares that this man who has carefully harvested more support from fellow politicians than any non-incumbent presidential candidate in recent history is "not a politician's politician."

Maybe such attributes will help Bush survive the acres of newsprint that will be devoted to serious investigation of his youth and its excesses, his business career, his private habits, his military record, his friendships. Almost certainly, people will tire of the endless analysis of his relationships with his father, his mother, his wife, his children.

They'll tire of this stuff because in presidential campaigns, ideas have consequences and can trump even the strongest personalities. So the core character issue confronting the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination will not be booze, babes or drugs. It will revolve around the question: What does George W. Bush believe, and why does he believe it?

His allies will tell you that the governor of Texas has given some very clear answers. Bush's campaign Web site lists nearly a hundred positions on issues, and many of them are quite specific -- on China policy and trade, taxes and tort reform. And he has, after all, staked out a personal philosophy with a name: compassionate conservatism. It's a term whose use was pioneered by others, but Bush is the first to make it the centerpiece of a presidential campaign. "On this ground," he declares at one campaign stop after another, "I'll take my stand."

But what exactly does Bush mean by compassionate conservatism? Here, the mystery begins.

If you ask him what the Republican Party has done wrong since 1994, he'll offer you a quick answer. "It hasn't put a compassionate face on our conservative philosophy," he replies during an interview in the governor's wood-paneled, uncluttered Austin office. "People think oftentimes that Republicans are mean-spirited folks. Which is not true, but that's what people think."

Those sentiments make Bush appealing to many moderates and even liberals alienated over the years by the Republican Party. In his fullest account of compassionate conservatism (a July 22 speech in Indianapolis), he even went out of his way to separate himself from Republicans who have insisted that the "armies of compassion" in religious institutions could substitute for government.

Bush, of course, loves those armies and talks about them all the time. But, in the Indianapolis speech, he insisted that "there are some things that government should be doing -- like Medicaid for poor children" -- and that "government cannot be replaced by charities." That certainly seems to put a decent distance between Bush's genial Republicanism and the fire-eating right.

But examine his words carefully. Note what W., as he's known in media circles, actually says in the interview: that the Republicans need to put a compassionate face on their party. That's not the same as transforming it. On the contrary, Bush seems to be saying there's nothing wrong with the Republican Party that a different face won't cure. We know whose face he has in mind.

Yes, people may think the Republicans are "mean-spirited." But Bush quickly adds that this impression can't possibly be true. Which raises the question: Is Bush about public relations or political philosophy, better principles or better cosmetics?

Bush's statements are worth parsing carefully because he has been so successful in getting people of very different views to believe he is one of them.

Many Texas Democrats say that Bush is a centrist who agrees with them on many things. "George has been at odds with some of the leading Republican figures in the state," says one Democratic state legislator who doesn't want his name used for fear of offending Bush and his fellow Democrats simultaneously. "You talk to him in private, and there are a lot of things that, as a Democrat, you agree with him on. He's a moderate."

But talk to conservative Bush fans and you hear the opposite: He's a true conservative who knows how to talk moderate. "More conservative than his father, George W. has a proven record of conservative accomplishment that the media have largely ignored," Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition, wrote in the National Review this July. "A Bush victory in November 2000 would be a conservative triumph, not a moderate one."

Reed's view may be biased because he's a Bush consultant whose job involves winning over the right. But Reed was only echoing what other conservatives are saying.

Somebody has to be wrong here. How can Bush be all things to all people? Maybe it's because he doesn't have deep beliefs. Or maybe he's hiding something from somebody. Maybe he really is on the trail of the grand synthesis Republicans have been searching for since Ronald Reagan left office.

One of the secrets of W.'s success in appealing to almost everybody is his mastery of the very oldest political art: He just gets people, all kinds of people, to like him. In person, he's warm, he mugs, he jokes. He clues in fast to the particular thing that makes the somebody in front of him tick.

At a winery in Grapevine, for instance, he doesn't talk too long. He wants time to work the crowd, to put an arm on friends, to look everyone in the eye and remember things about their kids. "He's not looking over your shoulder at the next guy's name tag," says a friend, Republican state Rep. Tom Craddick.

Bush conveys a merry irony about the very political game he takes so seriously. Bush doesn't feel your pain; he counts you in on the joke. In late June, he walked up to New York Times reporter Rick Berke as Berke was doing a tarmac commentary in Austin for MSNBC. Bush joshed him for delaying the campaign plane, and practically pulled him off the screen. But in the process, Bush granted Berke an impromptu interview and won some free air time. Good nature has its uses.

And W. profits immensely from being a Republican in Texas. Liberals there are accustomed to conservative tough guys like Reps. Tom DeLay and Dick Armey and Sen. Phil Gramm. Compared with them, Bush is a sweetie. Start with state Rep. Glen Maxey, an openly gay member of the Texas legislature. Maxey disagrees with Bush on most things and is one of his most articulate critics. But here's Maxey on Bush: "As a liberal gay activist in the Texas House of Representatives, I say: He's not as bad as he could be."

Some endorsement. But Maxey goes on. "This place can be very mean. It can be very mean-spirited. There are many of us who are so pleasantly surprised that he's AWOL on issues that could be so detrimental to Texas." Far better to be AWOL than mean.

Or take the way in which W. won over a large share of Texas's Latino community. He made Hispanics and many liberals happy by voicing opposition to California's Proposition 187, which called for cutting off public services to illegal immigrants, including children.

It's true that the local political risk to Bush was small. Even among conservatives and Republicans, the immigration issue plays very differently in Texas than it does in California. But Maxey's maxim applies: Seen by those outside the conservative orbit, Bush is not as bad as he could be.

And few politicians are better at seizing symbolic opportunities. Juan Sepulveda, a young community activist in San Antonio, notes that when the grand marshal of the city's Diez y Seis parade, a local music legend named Flaco Jimenez, could not march because of illness, Bush volunteered to take his place.

The gesture, of course, entailed not a single concession on a single issue. But as Sepulveda explains, Bush's move underscored the political shrewdness of this very political man. "He understands the importance of building relationships, and that came across in a pro-active way," Sepulveda says. In Bush's reelection campaign, footage of W. on the parade route appeared in his Spanish language television ads. And he now boasts of winning almost half the Latino vote.

State Rep. Miguel Wise, a Democrat whose predominantly Latino district in the Rio Grande Valley is racked by poverty, says this about Bush: "He is an Everyday Joe. He's the guy you run into and watch an NBA game with in a sports bar." That Wise says such a thing about a Republican educated at Andover, Yale and Harvard Business -- and who doesn't even drink anymore -- tells you something about the power of the one piece of discernible ideology Bush has forged: the ideology of personality.

Like Bill Clinton, Bush is the sort of man who leaves an 80 percent approval rating in his wake as he passes through any room. He truly loves the business of connecting, relating, persuading.

But persuading to what end? To understand what W. believes, it helps to know about his religious faith, his business background and his family legacy.

This year, it seems the first requirement of any presidential candidate is to describe his or her personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Bush does this better than most. As he talks, he lets you know that he knows how embarrassing it would be if he laid it on too thick. He suggests that his religious experiences are not something he likes to talk about. And then he will talk about them at length.

"First of all, I generally don't spend a lot of time talking about my religion unless I'm asked," he says, "or unless there's a purpose." The nice reluctance. Then: "I was raised in a Christian household by a mother and father who really gave me the greatest gift of all, which is unconditional love. That in itself is somewhat biblical.

"But I think everybody has to come to terms with their own religion," he continues. "And I always say God works in mysterious ways and I renewed my spirit. It means precisely that I've accepted Christ as my savior, that's what that means."

Bush is a nondenominational sort of guy. He began life in a good Episcopalian family and then adopted the Methodism of his wife. Methodists constitute a much larger religious tribe than Episcopalians, and their church's history is rooted in the experiences of the working class, not the upper class.

Methodists also have a long history of social action, and their church has always had an important progressive wing. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Methodist from birth, is very representative of the church's social justice tradition. Bush's Methodism reflects a parallel tradition that emphasizes self-improvement through self-discipline. Faith has a functional, 12-step-program quality for him.

"For me, it means understanding and accepting whatever comes with life. I mean, it helps prepare me for my own daily struggles and my own thinking. I believe in prayer. I read the Bible. It helps strengthen me as a person. It helps me understand the priorities in life of family and faith."

Many who know Bush affirm that his conversion was linked to the time his daughters were born in 1981. In talking about his sense of responsibility, he manages to take an oblique but tough shot at Bill Clinton.

There is, he says, "a certain maturation that happens when you assume the responsibility of being a father and a husband . . . I mean, I take solemn oaths very seriously and I can remember when our twins were born. I remember feeling how much my life changed the moment they were born and in anticipation how much it was going to change over time. And there's no question that if you assume your responsibility as a dad as seriously as we should, it changes your life."

And from here, Bush moves easily to answering questions about his compassionate conservatism, which is rooted in all the good work performed by religious institutions on behalf of the poor.

"In terms of government policy," he says, "probably the most profound impact that religion has had on me has led me to help, in our state, forge this relationship between church, synagogue and mosque and people who need help . . . and [we] have welcomed people of faith into the public arena to help people. I mean, the theory is that let's change your heart first, and good results will follow."

The way Bush talks about his religious faith solves three problems at once. Speaking with compassion about the poor takes the hard edges off conservatism. It allows him to relate easily to Chris-tian conservatives, without having to spend too much time on the hard issues -- abortion, gay rights, creationism -- that turn off moderates. And his conversion allows him to draw a sharp line between his self-described young and irresponsible past, and his presidency-seeking present. He's the prodigal son, the repentant sinner, the transformed man.

Bush resists the view that he is putting his faith to work for his campaign: "People will see through that in a minute." No one, including those among Bush's political opponents, doubts the sincerity of his conversion, the apparent seriousness of his faith, or the fact that his life did seem to change when he turned 40 in 1986. But the content of his faith is harder to pin down. The evidence, especially of his own words, is that it's less an intellectual calling than a matter of feelings and will. Ask him about favorite passages in the Bible, for instance, and his answers are surprisingly vague and general -- "Well," he says, "the Beatitudes are great. I mean a lot of the Bible."

"Religion is a very personal matter to me -- as it should be to everybody," he says. "I also understand that everybody comes to have religion different ways. All I know is -- I know the pathway for me is what I know. And I'm not going to try to tell you the pathway for you." This is a very nonjudgmental, end-of-the-century, good-vibes religion.

Yet compassionate conservatism Bush-style is clearly rooted in personal experience, in the notion that religious faith offers the most effective path to solving problems -- private and public problems. He seems to be promising to help every American who wants one to have a religious experience, the Ultimate Political Pledge.

"I ask the question, Does it work?" he says. "And to answer your question, from firsthand knowledge I know that changing your heart can work. It's worked for me. Will it work for everybody? Probably not. But, for example, if in fact we've reduced recidivism by changing hearts first, the state of Texas and, for that matter, America ought to say, `Thank you, Lord, let's do more.' "

Religious language also enables Bush to take hard, controversial political questions and move them to the soft, friendly ground of personal obligation and faith. He doesn't talk about social justice, minimum wages, unions or monopoly power. He preaches everybody's obligation to be kinder and gentler, to create a thousand points of light.

"Getting tough on crime is easy," says the man who boasts about his aggressive anticrime laws, "compared to loving our neighbors as ourselves. The truth is, we must turn back to God and look to Him for help."

Bush's compassion talk is never about the failure of the economic system, or the rights of those who are poor, or systematic injustices. He always comes back to individuals.

"I know many conservative thinkers and people who adhere to the notion of heralding the individual and individualism and less federal government are people who really do care about the future," he says in the interview. "Because they know what I know: Government can't make people love one another. There have really been a lot of false promises over the last 30 years as well: `Oh don't worry, you know, we'll make you love each other.' Well, unfortunately it doesn't happen that way. Love comes from a more powerful source."

He's proposing God, not government. It's how he squares his talk about compassion with his insistence on small government. How small? In Texas, at least, it's pretty small. In one legislative battle with the Democrats, for instance, Bush wanted to limit the number of poor children covered by a federally financed health care program. Eventually the governor compromised, but the larger point was made: Compassionism, as perhaps it should be called, is not liberalism.

Compassionate conservatism

has very old roots in the Republican Party. But even in its recent incarnation, it has an ambiguous paternity. One iteration was popularized by Newt Gingrich when he championed the writings of Marvin Olasky. This version emphasized the work of religious charities in helping the poor more effectively than any government program could. The upshot was that government should drop dead to bring the religious charities to life.

Olasky, a University of Texas journalism professor and a Bush campaign adviser, argued in a 1996 book, Renewing American Compassion, that in an ideal world Congress would simply abolish the federal safety net. "Congress should phase out federal assistance programs and push states to develop ways for individuals and community-based groups to take over poverty-fighting responsibility."

"We must place in the hands of state officials all decisions about welfare and the financing of it, and then press them to put welfare entirely in the hands of church- and community-based organizations." Smash the state in the name of God.

Ask Bush about Olasky, and he says this: "I think that our society can change one heart, one soul, one conscience at a time. That's what I believe. And I believe that Olasky understands that, and I believe that many people of faith understand that, and I'm proud that Olasky wants to try to figure out ways to make society respond to the call."

Bush clearly shares a good deal of Olasky's skepticism about government programs, despite his defense of government in his Indianapolis speech this summer. Here is what Bush said in April 1996: "As government did more and more, individuals were required to do less and less, and they responded with a vengeance. Dependency and laziness are easy when someone else is to blame. We became a nation of victims. Blame it on the parenting, the Prozac, the bossa nova -- take your pick."

The man who says he'll go to Washington to change the country doesn't think there's much Washington should do -- or at least didn't back in 1996. "We must reduce the role and scope of the federal government, returning it to the limited role our forefathers envisioned when they wrote the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, giving the states all power not specifically granted to the federal government."

If Olasky offers one version of compassionate conservatism, there's a more modest version, formulated by congressional Republicans such as former senator Dan Coats and Sens. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and John Ashcroft of Missouri. They argue that if Republicans want to reduce the size of government, they have an obligation to come up with alternative ways of helping the poor. Their ideas have gained so much ground that Vice President Gore has endorsed government cooperation with faith-based organizations.

By turns attacking and defending government, Bush has managed to straddle the entire field of compassionate conservatism. He and his advisers have been ingenious at devising formulas that can be read as friendly by pro- and anti-government voters alike. "My guiding principle," he once said, "is government if necessary, but not necessarily government." Those words might, in principle at least, be spoken as easily by Ted Kennedy as by Jesse Helms.

If you ask Indianapolis Mayor Steve Goldsmith, Bush's top domestic policy adviser, about Bush's leanings, he gives an entirely open answer that simultaneously clarifies and deepens the mystery of W.'s commitments. Bush, he explains, will seek advice anywhere -- as long as potential advisers are willing to stick with a short list of core principles.

"I believe in states' rights," Goldsmith says, paraphrasing his marching orders from Bush. "I believe in federalism. I believe individuals ought to have choices and that government has a role in this. Now bring me the best ideas you can." H.J. "Tex" Lazar, who ran unsuccessfully for Texas lieutenant governor on Bush's ticket in 1994, says that in keeping his list of principles short and in delegating most of the details to others, W. "resembles Ronald Reagan more than he resembles his father."

But for all of Bush's warm invocations of "mercy" and "love," there remains a hard -- or, if you prefer, tough love -- side to his compassion.

Ask Bush why people are poor, and he speaks almost entirely about their shortcomings. "Oftentimes people are poor because of decisions they make," he says. "Oftentimes people are poor because they didn't get a good education . . . [and aren't] making right choices and staying in school and working hard in school."

Are there any social reasons for poverty? "I think if you grow up in an impoverished world that's full of drugs and alcohol, it makes it very hard to break out of the environment which you're in," he says.

Compassionate conservatism is a work in progress, and in this sense, Bush is very different from Bill Clinton, who spent years honing his ideas at the National Governors Association and the Democratic Leadership Council. Clinton arrived on the national scene with bulging packets of proposals. Bush, on the other hand, has shrewd political instincts, some experience -- especially in education reform -- and a very smart stump speech. Ideas will come later.

In all the analysis and hype surrounding compassionate conservatism, it's possible to lose track of how deeply rooted this idea is in the very old Republican doctrine that voluntary action is better than government action.

Here's Bush's inaugural address this year: "Reducing problems to economics is simply materialism," he declared. "The real answer is found in the hearts of decent, caring people who have heard the call to love their neighbors as they would like to be loved themselves. We must rally the armies of compassion in every community of this state. We must encourage them to love, to nurture, to mentor, to help and thus to offer hope to those who have none."

Now consider these words: "Our national resources are not only material supplies and material wealth but a spiritual and moral wealth in kindliness, in compassion, in a sense of obligation of neighbor to neighbor, and a realization of responsibility by industry, by business and by the community for its social security and its social welfare . . . We can take courage and pride in the effective work of thousands of voluntary organizations for the provision of employment, for the relief of distress, that have sprung up over the entire nation."

The speaker? Herbert Hoover, in 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression. When Bush insists that he truly is a conservative, he has a good case to make and a powerful pedigree to invoke.

Of course Hoover is not exactly a Republican icon, precisely because he failed to use government effectively in a time of national catas-trophe. One way to summarize what Bush will need to explain about compassionate conservatism is whether he thinks Hoover was right -- or, alternatively, where he and Hoover differ. For in his basic attitudes toward government's role in the economy, Bush is decidedly a traditional Republican.

The fabulously renovated chambers of the Texas legislature feel as opulent as the interests that stalk its halls. Under the rules, representatives of those interests can even get onto the floor to catch the people's representatives as they go in and out. It's a place where oil and gas are sacred words and where the term "taking care of business" means precisely what it says.

Even though the Texas House is under Democratic control, the legislature is a place W. knows how to work. He has lost sometimes -- in the case of education reform, at the hands of his own party. But, in general, he's done well -- in part because of The Personality. He assiduously courted Democratic allies, notably the late Bob Bullock. Bullock served as lieutenant governor in Bush's first term, guided him through the arcane ways of Austin politics, and became a Democrat for Bush in the 1998 campaign.

But Bush also did well because he was in tune with his party and Texas's Tory Democrats on the imperative of being good to business by keeping taxes low, curbing lawsuits and resisting regulation. It's no wonder, as National Journal reported recently, that Texas ranks 50th among states in total per capita spending, 35th in per capita education spending, and still has a state minimum wage of $3.35 an hour.

It's worth remembering that one of W.'s central campaign themes when he defeated popular Democratic Gov. Ann Richards in 1994 was tort reform. It was one of the major legislative achievements of his first term. Limiting the ability of plaintiffs to bring suits, notably against businesses, is a cause most corporate executives hold dear. By winning, Bush made his business backers happy, while striking a blow at trial lawyers, one of the most durable sources of Demo-cratic campaign money.

Bush's biography is the story of a man who ran a single, unsuccessful campaign for Congress in 1978, tried to make it in business and came back to politics later. By Election Day 2000, he will still have had less than six years of experience in elected office. Most of his life has been about business, not politics.

Bush's own business career was, for many years, an uneven journey through oil exploration and deal-making. In both endeavors, he had more than a little help courtesy of his father's connections. Bush didn't achieve real success until he put himself in the middle of the sale of the Texas Rangers and became the baseball team's managing partner. This is a deal on which he did very well indeed: He paid $600,000 for his share of the Rangers and sold it a decade later for nearly $15 million. It's not a surprise that he loves capitalism and his business friends, or that phrases such as creating "an environment in which people are willing to risk capital" routinely cross his lips.

Bush's love affair with business interests is certain to be an issue in the coming campaign, especially in light of the astounding amounts of cash he's raised.

Does business get what it pays for? Texas environmentalists and labor leaders think so. One of the big environmental issues this year involved Texas industrial plants, many of them in the oil and gas industry, that won exemptions in 1971 from various emission and pollution control standards.

Bush fought for, and eventually won, a voluntary program to clean up the plants. Environmentalists wanted a mandatory program. They denounced Bush and made public a long list of contributions to his presidential campaign from the protected companies and their attorneys.

Bush's fiscal conservatism was on display in the battle over federally subsidized children's health insurance, a program that had to be implemented by the states. Bush wanted to limit the program to only those children who were in families with an income of 150 percent of the poverty level or less. Dem-ocrats in the Texas legislature wanted the cutoff to be 200 percent of poverty, to cover roughly 200,000 additional kids.

Bush justifies his stand in the name of fiscal responsibility. "There is a lot of uncertainty," he says. "One of my jobs is to create certainty in the budget and to look beyond the short term, and I will tell you, in times of plenty, the government must not overcommit because we may not have times of plenty in the future."

Yet, Bush did not worry about committing $1.8 billion in state money in these "times of plenty" for tax cuts. To protect those cuts, Bush's legislative allies resisted proposals by his sometime partner on education reform, state Rep. Paul Sadler, a Democrat, who wanted a smaller tax cut to leave room for financing kindergartens throughout Texas. (Sadler eventually got much of what he wanted but not universal kindergarten.)

Nor was Bush at all reluctant to provide a $45 million tax break to the oil and gas industry, which he signed into law this year. State Rep. Dale Tillery drew a direct contrast to the child health care bill. "I know a whole lot of uninsured children," he told the Dallas Morning News, "but I don't know a lot of poor oilmen."

If Bush is the Everyday Joe that Rep. Wise says he is, that does not make him an ally of organized labor, which remains positively hostile. "We just don't have that great relationship with him that everybody else says they have," says Rick Levy, legal director of the state AFL-CIO. Bush has never forgiven the unions for opposing certain pet measures early in his first term, Levy says, accusing Bush of routinely breaking deals that labor negotiated with his staff. "He can be very vindictive if you oppose him," Levy says.

Bush's many conservative stands might be music to anti-government, anti-labor ears. But in the biggest fight of his time as governor -- a fight Bush lost -- he found himself at odds with many staunch conservatives.

In 1997, Bush pushed for a new way of financing the state's schools. It was designed to cut property taxes and dramatically increase the state's share of education funding. To do that, he proposed a series of tax increases, including increases in sales and business taxes.

The result would have been a net cut in taxes. But many conservatives focused on the increases. "This is not a Republican philosophy in this bill," Tom Paulken, then the GOP state chairman, complained at the time. Bush's plan was rewritten by the legislature and Bush embraced a version created by Democrats. The bill Bush endorsed won more Democratic than Republican support in the House.

At the end of a tortured process, the school financing reform failed. Bush had to settle for using part of the state's large surplus for a property tax cut. As luck would have it -- and Bush is definitely lucky -- the failure of his ambitious plan and its replacement with a simple tax cut turn out to be a boon to him in the current campaign. He doesn't have to explain business or sales tax increases, and he can boast about cutting taxes.

In the interview, that's exactly what he does: "It fell apart, and we ended up cutting taxes by a billion dollars." Different people draw different lessons from the education fight. It's true that though Bush lost, he took a large political risk in an attempt to accomplish something. Texas voters, he says, "appreciate the fact that I took a stand, fought for something I thought was right."

Yet the education battle was also an example of Bush's flexibility, his willingness to work with members of the other party. You can see this flexibility as a mark of realism, or of something less than principle.

Texas state Rep. Bob Junell, a Democrat who supported Bush for reelection and supports him for president, calls him a "bottom line guy" with "lots of flexibility as to how we get there." But Maxey takes a different view: "It's all political. I fundamentally don't know where he stands on anything."

Which leads to one safe conclusion: You can't know what a Bush presidency would be like until you know who'll control Congress. A Republican-led Congress would accentuate Bush's conservative side; a Congress with at least one Democratic chamber would bring out the deal-maker.

Remember that child health care bill, the one Bush worried might "overcommit" state resources if it covered kids at 200 percent of the poverty level? In May, Maxey, the bill's leading House sponsor, predicted that the legislature would ignore Bush, pass the 200 percent proposal -- and that Bush would praise it and sign it. That's exactly what Bush did.

You cannot understand W. without sitting down and talking to his top political strategist, Karl Rove.

Sandy-haired and slightly balding, Rove spits out ideas in automatic-weapon bursts. He combines many roles within himself. Like James Carville, he is a shrewd strategist. Like Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, he has an academic side that includes a strong feeling for history. And like the late Lee Atwater, Rove is good at keeping in touch, lining people up, keeping supporters on board.

Rove is almost single-handedly responsible for the political comeback of William McKinley. He has pushed his theory that the 2000 election has the same epoch-making potential as the election of 1896, when McKinley produced a new and enduring Republican majority. Rove argues that McKinley understood that the issues surrounding the Civil War, which had dominated politics for three decades, were no longer relevant.

McKinley also understood that immigration and industrialization had changed the character of the country. If Republicans did not make a bid for the votes of immigrants and the working class generally, they would lose preeminence. Rove, for whom archival research is a hobby, can cite letters McKinley wrote describing the party's problem, and meetings he held with immigrant leaders to bring them around to his party's promise of the "full dinner pail."

Rove's analysis represents a sharp break with the popular conservative assumption that all that's required for a Republican victory is to re-create Ronald Reagan's appeal and reassemble his coalition. The electorate has changed in the 15 years since Reagan's last election -- baby boomers and younger voters are now at its heart, and voters generally are less partisan. And Reagan's best issues are gone: The Cold War is over and hostility to government programs has ebbed.

It's not hard to see how the McKinley parallel plays itself out in 2000. W.'s quest for Latino votes, a large factor in California, Texas, Florida, New Jersey and Illinois, is directly comparable to McKinley's wooing of Czechs, Slovaks, Italians, Bohemians and Irish.

Similarly, Bush's minuets on social issues such as abortion and affirmative action reflect a sense that -- whatever Gary Bauer or Pat Buchanan might hope -- creating a durable Republican majority requires converting suburban independents and Demo-crats whose social and moral views are more moderate than conservative.

And it's clear that Bush has taken into account the failure of House Republican revolutionaries' strategy of assailing government. He wants Republicans at least to look less hostile to government. However vague it may be, Bush's formula -- "government if necessary, but not necessarily government" -- resonates very differently from Ronald Reagan's bold proclamation that "government isn't the solution, government is the problem."

Identity crises in the Republican Party are nothing new, and another Bush once struggled with the problem of the party's image in an era of transition. "Differences between our major parties are blurred," he declared. "Factions mark splits within each party. Slogans and labels are used today much as they were in Lincoln's time to create differences where none exist, or to cover up the real differences which honest reason and discussion would expose."

That's Sen. Prescott Bush, W.'s grandfather, from a 1955 Lincoln Day speech. Bush was a partisan of Dwight Eisenhower's "Modern Republicanism," which involved, as historian Leonard Schlup has written, "absorbing Democratic programs while cutting the costs." It was an approach that "permitted Republicans to incorporate Democratic issues." Sound familiar?

Like the grandson, the grandfather sought a catch phrase. Prescott Bush drew his from Eisenhower. "It is a philosophy of progressive moderation, as the president has called it, or of moderate progressivism, as others name it," he said.

It is a sign of the great change in the Republican Party that in 44 years and two generations, progressive moderation has transmogrified into compassionate conservatism. Yet the grandson's purpose doesn't differ much from the grandfather's. Both have sought a formula for Republican success. Both have sought to strike, as Prescott Bush put it in his Lincoln Day speech, "a responsive chord in the minds and aspirations of the American people."

Which still leaves the question: Is Bush about political philosophy or political positioning? Pragmatism with a purpose or electoral calculation? Does he represent good-natured compromise or is he just looking for action?

Even Rove's McKinley parallel is ambiguous. It's true that McKinley launched a Republican era. Republicans won seven of the nine presidential elections from 1896 to 1928. But McKinley was assassinated in 1901 and Theodore Roosevelt took over. He launched the first great progressive era, which lasted nearly 20 years, through the end of Woodrow Wilson's Democratic administration. If Rove's Great Transition Election theory about 2000 is true, it's not clear what we're transitioning to.

If there is a safe bet, it is that W. is instinctively more conservative than he looks, and very conservative where the interests of business are concerned. Those big campaign contributors, a sophisticated lot, know what they're doing.

But on so many other issues, Bush is cultivating what you might see as a brilliant ambiguity. Take affirmative action.

On June 30, the New York Times ran the headline "California, Here Bush Comes, a Moderate on Immigration and Racial Quotas." On the same day, the headline in the Washington Times read: "Bush favors ending quotas."

What Bush actually said is this: "I support the spirit of no quotas, no preferences. But I think what's important to say is not what you're against -- [but] what you're for. I'm for increasing the pool of applicants and opening the door so that more people are eligible to go to the university systems."

As John J. Miller, a National Review writer who called attention to the dueling headlines, wrote, "Until Bush states clearly where he stands on race and sex preferences, headline writers won't be the only people who are confused."

Or take abortion. Bush's record tilts strongly against it. The National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League lists 18 provisions in bills Bush signed that it sees as threatening to abortion rights or birth control. Bush says he supports a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. But he also says there is no chance such an amendment could pass.

He has refused, to the consternation of social conservatives, to say he would appoint antiabortion judges. He says he opposes "litmus tests," a term that offends abortion foes because it was invented by their opponents. Yet he has said that his favorite Supreme Court justice is Antonin Scalia, perhaps the most ardent critic of Roe v. Wade on the court. On this issue, Bush is madly sending signals to everybody.

The most interesting thing of all is that the Bush of many ambiguities, of deal-making and compromising, insists that he really wants to be the Bush of ideas.

Ask him about his family's tradition of public service, and rather than embracing his father, he puts some subtle distance between himself and the former president whom the right wing of his party so mistrusted.

"Obviously it's a proud tradition," he says. Yet, referring to himself and his brother Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, he adds, "I believe we have that sense of service, but I believe that we're both driven as well by ideas and philosophy. That we have come to realize, particularly in our respective roles as governors, how powerful an idea can be. And that it's important to serve but it's also important to achieve results. To set goals, clear and measurable goals, and to lead."

But where? Bush could prove to be the man who brought his party back to a modulated view of government that his grandfather would understand. Or he could parade into office under the banner of compassion and turn out to be one of the most conservative presidents in recent history. The maddening thing for voters may be this: He has absolutely no interest in resolving this mystery until after the votes are counted on Election Day 2000.

E.J. Dionne Jr. is a columnist for The Post.