George W. Bush grabs my arm. He smiles. He jokes. He touches my shoulder. He is gregarious. He can be awfully funny. He is hale and hearty, but as a potential president, he is not acting well-met. He lacks the courage of his convictions.

About those convictions, I have no doubt. In three days of following him through New Hampshire and Iowa, it strikes me that this is a decent fellow. Over and over he bids us to remember the working poor, single mothers, kids for whom we have low expectations--a "soft bigotry," he calls it. Bush may be a conservative but, as he constantly reminds his audiences, he's a compassionate one.

But he will not take a stand on South Carolina's use of the Confederate flag. Many South Carolinians claim it as part of their legacy, but it was adopted only in 1962 and then as Jim Crow's Jolly Roger--an in-your-face response to those, both black and white, who demanded an end to racial segregation. Bush says he appreciates the passions on both sides of the issue but it is up to South Carolinians to decide the matter for themselves.

With the exception of Al Gore, every presidential candidate declares himself to be the antidote to Bill Clinton. They all promise a candor and forthrightness that distinguishes them not only from Clinton, but from all politicians since time immemorial. John McCain is exhibit A in this regard. But he, too, would rather be president than right. So after first condemning the Confederate flag as "a symbol of racism and slavery," he lapsed into a mumble. He said he could see both sides of the question. If you listened closely, you could hear McCain swallowing his pride.

Bush, though, is in a category of his own. First of all, he is the front-runner--first in cash, first in the national polls and first in the hearts of Republican regulars. Second, Bush gave a similar answer when asked months ago what he thought of the Kansas school board's decision to end the teaching of evolution. He pronounced it a local matter. But he was not being asked to intervene, only what he thought. He thought, it turned out, he ought to keep his mouth shut.

Third, a good part of Bush's stump speech is about values. He begins with a paean to his wife and twin girls, even mentions his cats and often ends with a ringing declaration to be the sort of president who will restore honor and integrity to the office--"so help me God."

The pitch is effective, but it is also meaningless. The mere fact that Bush is a conscientious father and faithful husband is interesting but beside the point. What matters most is public character--not what a politician does at home, but what he does at the office. It's commendable that he does not cheat on his wife. It's not commendable that he has nothing to say about a flag that, to blacks and others, is downright repugnant. He joins McCain in the cowards corner.

The real dilemma, as we all know, is that South Carolina is about to have a primary. The issue is not local control or states' rights, principles which Bush says he holds dear, but the guts to take a politically unpopular position. After all, Bush is not being asked to clamber up the flagpole and rip the thing down or, as president, send in the troops for that purpose. He is merely being asked to exercise some moral leadership. Should this flag, flown in a cause that allowed white people to own black people and resurrected in the cause of segregation, be officially flown over the very same people whose ancestors were slaves? It is not a very hard question to answer.

At last Saturday's Republican debate, Jeff Greenfield of CNN asked some reporters what they learned from covering the campaign. I was not asked, but I will answer anyway: I learned George W. Bush is not the dummy some people think he is. Among other things, he possesses a great sense of humor--my personal IQ test. Yale had him about right: a C-student, an A-plus personality. The Oval Office has seen worse.

But when it comes to the Confederate flag, he fails his own strict standards of leadership. He says he's a uniter, not a divider. He should look around. The neutral corner to which he has moved on the flag issue has no blacks, and certainly not all whites. He's with the wrong people, sending the wrong message, showing no leadership and pretending this is merely some nettlesome local issue, a zoning controversy or something. It's not. It's about conviction and courage--and Bush is only halfway there.