HOUSTON, FEB. 20 -- A jubilant George Bush, the down and out New Englander of a week ago, rode along Main Street here today in a horse-drawn buckboard waving a spanking new white cowboy hat as loudspeakers urged crowds to "welcome a native Houstonian to his home town."
Yes, Vice President Bush has undergone a remarkable transformation in the past few days. The L.L. Bean candidate of snowy New Hampshire has put on cowboy boots and a green bandanna and been reborn as a rough and tumble Texan.
The candidate, who only last week told New Hampshire voters, "I am one of you," can't seem to find enough western symbols to wrap around himself. In the past three days, he has visited the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City; palled around with former Dallas Cowboys star quarterback Roger Staubach; attended a barbecue at a ranch outside of San Antonio, and rode behind the Texas A&M marching band as it played "The Aggies War Hymn" in the annual Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo Parade.
Bush, weary after the long Iowa and New Hampshire campaigns, has done very little to make news or to create controversy since Tuesday's New Hampshire primary. But in some ways he has looked less uptight, more forceful and self confident than at anytime since his days as a "hot" presidential candidate in 1980.
"I feel very good about politics and being alive on a day like this," he said after the parade through downtown Houston today. "It's been a tough few weeks."
Then, he turned and yelled, "Go Aggies" at the Texas A&M band.
Bush has more than a little to shout about this week. Not only did he halt what appeared to be a slide into political oblivion with a convincing win in New Hampshire, he kicked off "Super Tuesday" campaigns in three states this week and gave an impressive peformance in a debate Friday night with Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.).
He did so while Sen. Robert J. Dole (Kan.), his chief rival for the GOP presidential nomination, floundered, bitter over his New Hampshire loss. Bush sidestepped mentioning Dole by name after Tuesday, but chided him indirectly for brooding -- while boasting about his own comeback.
"You learn that the rodeo is full of hard encounters with the ground. And you learn to pick yourself up and dust yourself off and get back on the horse again," Bush said at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. "And there's a lesson in that for everybody in public life and it's a lesson that the people of Iowa reminded me of 10 days ago. So you don't get angry and bitter when you get defeated. You pick yourself back up and get back on the horse and go on to the next election."
Dole made what appeared to be a major blunder in refusing to attend Friday's nationally televised debate. The Kansas senator and former television evangelist Pat Robertson, who also boycotted the debate, claimed that the audience was stacked with Bush supporters and that debate questions had been leaked to Bush -- allegations vehemently denied by the debate's sponsors.
This opened Dole up to charges that he was "writing off" or "trivializing" the March 8 Texas primary.
The Dallas Morning News, one of the debate's sponsors, polled 221 registered Republicans who watched the debate. Ninety-one percent of those surveyed said Dole had damaged himself by not attending; 80 percent said the same about Robertson.
The one-on-one debate gave Kemp a golden opportunity to confront Bush, but Kemp saved some of his best lines for a news conference after it was over and allowed Bush to put him on the defensive. Sixty-one percent of those surveyed by the Dallas Morning News said Bush won the debate; 28 percent said Kemp won.
With 111 delegates, Texas is the largest state holding a primary on Super Tuesday. Bush desperately wants a victory in this "home" state and has built a far stronger organization here and in most other Super Tuesday states than has Dole.
But Bush realizes that his Texas roots are somewhat suspect. He did go into the oil business in the state after college, live here, and represented Houston in the U.S. House. He still keeps a voting residence, listing a suite at the Houstonian Hotel here, as his address. But as he told audiences in New Hampshire, "I was born in Massachusetts, grew up in Connecticut and live across the way in Maine."
Bush said at a rally after Friday's debate that he was worried those words might come back to haunt him. "In New Hampshire I said, 'I am one of you.' I grew up in that part of the country. So I was armed tonight. But they wouldn't let me use my credentials -- my Texas hunting license, my Texas driver's license and my voter's registration card."