Texas Gov. George W. Bush, responding to criticism from leading Democrats that he lacks the experience or qualifications to be president, accused his critics today of trying "to defend the status quo" and claimed the Democrats fear his presidential candidacy.
Bush declined to offer a point-by-point rebuttal to charges that he has been vague or slow to explain his positions on issues from Kosovo to gun control to hate crimes legislation. But in an interview here, he attempted to cast himself as the candidate of change who is not caught up in the political culture of Washington.
"I haven't analyzed all the specifics," Bush said, "but if what they're saying is I haven't spent a lot of time in Washington, they're right."
The governor, who will make his first campaign trip outside of Texas next week, was responding to attacks from Tony Coelho, campaign chairman for Vice President Gore, and from Roy Romer, the Democratic Party's general chairman. Both said recently that despite his lead in the early polls, Bush is an untested leader whose popularity derives more from his name than his record or qualifications.
Romer said that if he were not the son of a former president, Bush not only would not be considered the front-runner for the Republican nomination, "he might not even be in the race." Both Romer and Coelho said Bush had been ducking major issues in an attempt to avoid offending Republican constituencies or swing voters, or both.
Without responding directly, Bush attempted to turn the tables on his critics. "My response is people will do anything to defend the status quo," he said. "My second response is I am pleased that such high-powered officials would mention my name and talk about me even before their man has the nomination. They must be worried."
But Bush's effort to cast himself as a Washington outsider may prove difficult. He has been endorsed by a majority of the Republicans in the House and is the favored candidate of the GOP establishment.
Aides to Bush said the governor will not begin to lay out specific policy proposals until later in the summer, after using his initial campaign swings to introduce himself to voters and explain the themes he will use in a campaign. [But in a break with some of his rivals, Bush indicated today that he supports President Clinton's request to renew normal trade relations with China, Reuters reported.]
Bush's aides said they anticipate more attacks, both from Bush's Republican rivals and from the Democrats, but said they feel no particular pressure to respond in kind.
Bush's initial campaign swing will take him to Iowa and New Hampshire beginning June 12. Shortly after that trip, he will visit such states as California, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, Virginia and South Carolina.
Bush said he would wait until later to engage with Gore and other Democrats. "My initial focus is to get the nomination," he said. "Once nominated I will be happy to debate whoever the nominee of the Democratic Party is. But I thought it was a high compliment that these two high-ranking officials would feel like they've got to talk about me. What are we, 18 months away from the election? But that's their choice."
One senior Bush adviser said he and other campaign officials were surprised at how quickly the Democrats have targeted Bush. Not only did Romer and Coelho attack the Texas governor, but both the national and Texas Democratic parties have intensified their effort to derail Bush's campaign. "I think it testifies to the instability in Democratic ranks and concerns about our candidacy," the official said. "A bit dog barks, and they're barking."
CAPTION: Texas Gov. George W. Bush uses a Houston department store as his setting for signing a bill that includes annual three-day sales tax moratorium on clothing.