As George W. Bush leaves the confines of the Texas governor's mansion for the campaign trail this weekend, his Republican opponents are preparing to attack his agenda and experience as well as what they see as an effort by the party establishment to virtually anoint him as its nominee.
Some of his rivals have warned that the GOP establishment has built up the Texas governor into a near-mythic figure who, like Godot, will never show up to save the day.
"If he can run everyone out of the race through money and endorsements and excessive media coverage, then he'll be the nominee without a contest," said former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, who recently called Bush "completely untested." He added: "But he can't do that to me. He's entitled to run and compete but he's not entitled to inherit it."
At least seven candidates will be in Iowa this week as Bush kicks off his campaign with hundreds of reporters in tow. At least three candidates -- Alexander, Elizabeth Dole and Ohio Rep. John R. Kasich -- will be there on Saturday, the day Bush speaks.
"I'll be at the pork producers' candidate forum talking about how agriculture prices are in the tank," Alexander said. "I'm running a very old-fashioned campaign."
All of Bush's primary opponents say they have no plans to go negative against him. But the governor's early dominance in the polls, fund-raising and endorsements make him an inevitable target for his GOP rivals.
Some candidates, particularly Alexander and former vice president Dan Quayle, have been unable to hide their irritation at what they see as the GOP establishment's rush to crown Bush before he's been tested on the campaign trail. Their reactions have the ring of an emerging campaign theme.
Quayle told the Associated Press after 117 House Republicans endorsed Bush, "They're trying to go with polls rather than ideas. And that is a colossal mistake."
The rivals are banking on the premises that once the nationally untested Bush is forced to answer questions about policy, his background and his record, he's bound to slip up and that it will be difficult for him to meet such high expectations.
"Most of the other candidates assume that once he gets on the road, his poll numbers will start to bounce up and down and all around, and that will create opportunities," said New Hampshire GOP chairman Steve Duprey.
Bush, the thinking goes, has been able to dominate the field only because he hasn't been in it.
"Not to suggest that there's going to be a mass ganging up on him, but inevitably, it's going to allow other people to respond not to a mythology but to an actual live, breathing candidate," said Tom Rath, an Alexander adviser and New Hampshire GOP committeeman. "As far as I'm concerned, it's great news he's getting out there."
The strategies against Bush fall into two categories. Quayle, Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes, Gary Bauer and Patrick J. Buchanan will seek to test Bush's conservative credentials. They argue that Bush represents an extension of the accommodationist wing of the party, who will -- as was the case with Robert J. Dole and Bush's father, former president George Bush -- fail to ignite the passions of conservatives who dominate the party.
Bauer, former head of the conservative Family Research Council, has criticized Bush for his support for normalizing trade with China and for his incremental approach to outlawing abortion -- both issues that Bauer believes will undermine Bush with grass-roots and religious conservative primary voters.
"I believe every day outside of Texas for Governor Bush is going to be a day of extremely high risk," Bauer said in an interview. "His economic policy on China is indistinguishable from the Clinton-Gore policy. His policy on abortion is defeatist. If these ideas matter, we're going to have a real battle."
In an interview, Buchanan linked Bush to his father, saying the two "were very big on [normal trading status] for China and constructive engagement. To me, that's a policy that a long time ago degenerated into appeasement."
Forbes, with his ability to self-finance a race, has already launched a $2 million television, radio and print advertising campaign. While the ads focus on specific issues, several seek to set him apart from "establishment" politicians -- an obvious reference to Bush and Dole, who is running second to Bush in the polls.
"I think this race is going to boil down to a race between an establishment candidate and an outsider," Forbes said in an interview. Forbes campaign manager Bill Dal Col said the ads "level the playing field with us and Bush, and that's what we've got to do."
But political consultant Ralph Reed, who is advising Bush, said it will be difficult for candidates to challenge Bush's conservative credentials, especially after a legislative session that produced a major tax cut and a law requiring parental notification for abortion. "They've got to make the case that George W. Bush is not a conservative" to win the nomination, Reed said. "And that's going to be a very hard case to make."
At the other end of the political spectrum, Dole and Arizona Sen. John McCain, like Bush, are appealing to moderate as well as conservative primary voters and are banking on filling the void should he stumble.
A Dole campaign official, who asked to remain anonymous, said private polling shows that she is the second choice of a majority of people who support Bush. But Bush is vulnerable, the campaign official said, noting that his poll numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire -- where voters pay attention earlier to the nominating process -- have typically trailed national poll numbers by 10 points or more.
"If the governor stumbles, the beneficiary is Elizabeth Dole," the official said.
Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander says a rival in the presidential race, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, is not entitled to "inherit" the GOP nomination.