A brief rundown on what Texas Gov. George W. Bush brings to his quest for the Republican presidential nomination -- and the most important question he needs to answer:


1. Brand name. His is the second-best in Republican politics. Only Ronald Reagan is more admired among the party faithful than George and Barbara Bush, the governor's parents. The Bush network has helped fill his campaign treasury and left most of his rivals starved for cash.

2. Personality. He is popular with his fellow governors, moves easily among voters and, like Bill Clinton, draws strength from crowds. Add a sense of humor and an ego that, for now, is well under control, and it's a very attractive package. His wife, Laura, reinforces all these traits.

3. Political record. He beat a reasonably strong incumbent Democratic governor, Ann Richards, in the Republican year of 1994, took command in Austin (despite the constitutional weakness of his office), co-opted conservative Democrats and, by 1998, when he won landslide reelection and provided coattails for the whole state ticket, was the biggest Republican winner in the country. He has a wide lead over the two Democratic contenders in trial heats for 2000.

4. Populism. He's shown he can win votes in Latino and African American precincts where the GOP label usually is the kiss of death. Bush conveys some of the same passion Jack Kemp once did for making the American dream real for every child -- and that wins him support from voters who otherwise might not give him a second look.

5. Bipartisanship. He both preaches and practices it. Admittedly, Texas Democrats are not nearly as liberal as those he would face in the House of Representatives if he became president, but the country is hungry for an end to bickering in Washington, and Bush can plausibly claim to offer a fresh start.

All this has won him more support from other elected officials than any modern-era candidate who was not already president or vice president. For them, he is the hope of the party. But now we will find out if rank-and-file Republicans agree.


1. Inexperience. Until this week, he had campaigned in exactly one of the 50 states. He has been riding on his name and his reputation. Now he has to live up to them. As a fellow governor and early Bush supporter told me, "Every first-time presidential candidate stumbles. The question is whether he can pick himself up afterward."

His whole team of able people has to adjust to the demands of a presidential race. Last week they found themselves contradicting each other -- and the candidate -- on his pledge never to raise taxes, an issue that sank his father.

2. Invisibility. In the only national forum where he has performed so far, the meetings of the National Governors' Association, he has been no standout. Clinton made that group a pre-presidential showcase for his grasp of policy and his consensus-building skills. Bush has been a laid-back spectator, not a leader.

3. Stage fright. Bush has virtually no familiarity with running in tough Republican primaries; his only one came more than 20 years ago in a west Texas House race. He was nominated but defeated in November. Bush is not a great speaker; when the debates begin, he will be up against several rivals far more practiced in delivering their messages and with greater mastery of the issues. It's far from certain Bush will look like a giant among pygmies.

Now, The Big Question:

No, it's not his past. It's his priorities. As governor, Bush set a handful of goals for each biennial legislative session and refused to be drawn into other controversies. What does he think most needs doing in America? If he gives a dozen answers, he's fudging. His history suggests he will focus on just a few, so it's important to know what they are.

Closely related: How hard will he fight for them? His boldest first-term initiative was an overhaul of the Texas tax system, shifting the financing of essential state services from the property tax to levies on the expanding service sector. Bush told me in a first-term interview it would be a tough fight, "but the job of an executive is to look over the horizon and prepare his state for the future."

But when the Legislature balked, he capitulated. And, despite his landslide reelection, he abandoned tax reform this year in favor of an easy tax cut.

If the challenge of the presidency is preparing America for a disorderly world, a new economy and the demands of baby-boom retirement, is Bush up to the challenge? That's what we need to know.