Looking relaxed and sounding eager, Texas Gov. George W. Bush barnstormed across Iowa today with his heart on his sleeve, hoping to show that he can touch voters as effectively as he has tapped the checkbooks of the Republican elite.
His pitch: a sunny mixture of economic and political conservatism with a neighborly dose of love. Bush drew his greatest cheers when he defended the idea that conservatives can be compassionate, and when he promised to lead from principle, not from the polls.
"Prosperity alone is simply materialism," said Bush, striking a tone he is likely to carry through his campaign. With the economy in a record boom under a Democratic administration, the Republican front-runner's task is to find a further field to march on. "The success of America has never been proven by cities of gold, but by citizens of character."
Things continued to break well for the man whose political career has been a brief but vertical blur. The day was warm, the sky wide and blue with picture-book puffy clouds. Young corn sprouted emerald in the rolling fields. It was a perfect day to promise, as Bush did, "a fresh start after a season of cynicism."
He may be the most anticipated untested candidate since Dwight D. Eisenhower. For months he has tended the Texas legislature and soared in the polls as other candidates churned out the miles in search of support. But now that he's in the race, he told an audience of 500 at a lunchtime barbecue, he is in it all the way. "There's no turning back," Bush said, "and I intend to be the next president of the United States."
Eisenhower had the distinction of having led the victorious forces of global freedom in World War II. What distinguishes Bush? A well-known name, an army of endorsements and more than $15 million in early contributions. Is there more? That's what Iowa, and the whole political world -- the news contingent numbered in the hundreds -- watched today to see.
Everywhere he went, Bush was greeted by large crowds -- much larger than normal for so early in the campaign -- and the audiences seemed eager to like him. He pushed broad themes rather than specific plans, such themes as lower taxes, better schools, stronger communities and personal responsibility. The role of government, he said, is limited, but real. He emphasized tone over detail, promising a "positive, hopeful, inclusive" campaign. "A campaign that attracts new faces and new voices."
"There will come a time for formal speeches and 10-point plans," said Bush, who has been criticized for a shortage of meaty policy positions and a vagueness on controversial issues. For now, he said, "I wanna talk about what's on my heart."
As recently as last week, the candidate was trying to remain coy about his presidential plans. Having wrapped up the legislative session in Texas -- he refused to go out campaigning until that was done -- Bush said he was eager to "take the pulse" of the country to decide if people wanted him to run.
He dropped that facade today. Perhaps thinking of the Democratic front-runner, Vice President Gore -- who plans to announce formally Wednesday that he is running -- Bush told a crowd of 500 at lunch: "I'm going to have a formal announcement about my intentions sometime this fall. But I've come here to tell you today that I'm running for president of the United States."
Lowell Phelps was among the first to meet to governor, and Bush locked up his vote in roughly 10 seconds. "Boy, are we glad to see you!" the retired railroad worker told the candidate over the thrum of throbbing music at the airport hangar where Bush arrived.
"I'm glad to be here," Bush answered, and he threw an arm around Phelps.
"George W. gave me a hug!" Phelps exulted. "He's the only candidate in all these years who ever gave me a hug. Like a long-lost friend."
His wife, Cookie Phelps, was nearly sold, too. "I haven't made up my mind entirely," she said, "but I'm close." Then she said a few words in praise of candidate Elizabeth Dole.
He may be making a late start, but once he got here Bush wasted no time getting in the spirit of primary politics. He was in Iowa only a couple of hours before he appeared beside his first bale of hay and posed with his first tractor.
He pledged to support government ethanol subsidies, an issue dear to the pocketbooks of corn farmers, but reviled by Bush's former colleagues in the Texas oil business. He also announced that he will compete in the traditional straw poll to be held in Ames on Aug. 14. Several of Bush's lesser-funded GOP rivals are going all-out to make a breakthrough in Ames, and there has been speculation that Bush would play down the event. "I think we not only ought to compete, I think we ought to go win the Ames straw poll," Bush told an obviously pleased crowd of supporters in Des Moines this afternoon.
Many in the crowds of loyal Republicans spoke of their admiration for the candidate's parents, the former president and the popular first lady. In the son they could see many familiar Bush traits -- the craggy profile, the crooked mouth on the brink of a smile, the up-shooting eyebrows, the sudden tilt of the head.
But George W., as the current candidate is known, seemed more relaxed than his father, more comfortable with the idea of being looked at. "I guess it's the showman in me," he said on the flight to Iowa. He was explaining why he plays his best golf when there's a crowd watching, but he could just as easily have been talking about his campaign style.
The Bush staff dubbed the four-day campaign swing through Iowa and New England the "Great Expectations" tour. As reporters climbed onto the plane to Iowa, they found piled on their seats: T-shirts emblazoned "I Have Great Expectations for Governor Bush," star-shaped foam toys labeled "Squeeze to lower expectations," and laminated scorecards marked "How Did He Do?" (Possible grades: "Grand Slam," "Triple," "Double," "Single" and "Back to Minors.").
Bush boarded the chartered MD-80 shortly after sunrise in Austin, picked up the on-board microphone and, peering through reading glasses, greeted the media throng: "This is your candidate speaking," he said. "Please stow your expectations securely in the overhead bin as they may shift during the trip and they could fall and hurt someone -- especially me. . . .
"Please understand that while you are traveling with a well-trained crew, for many of us, this is our first solo flight," he continued. "Thanks for coming along today -- we know you have a choice of candidates when you fly, and we appreciate you choosing Great Expectations."
Later, the candidate worked his way through the cabin in his shirt sleeves and big rodeo-style silver belt buckle, chatting and laughing. Favorite subject: the new Austin Powers movie, which Bush said is not nearly as good as the first one.
His day was spent at picnics, at meetings with supporters, saying thanks to key organizers. First of all, though, was a visit to a church mission here, where Bush explained his support for "faith-based" social services. The Olivet Presbyterian Neighborhood Mission provides food, clothing, day care and youth programs for Cedar Rapids' needy.
Government support for such programs has become one of the hot ideas of the 2000 campaign so far; Gore recently gave a speech touting the concept. But Bush claims to have been among the first to embrace the notion.
The mission, Bush said later, was "sweet . . . it's the power of faith."
With his wife, Laura, at his side, Bush next addressed a fund-raising luncheon for Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa). There, he drew cheers when he defended the philosophy he calls "compassionate conservatism."
"Should our party be led by someone who boasts of a hard heart?" he asked. "I know Republicans across the country -- we're generous of heart."
That rang a bell with Robin Chase, a self-employed businessman, who said he has so far resisted efforts to enlist him as a precinct captain for Bush. "I liked the part of trying to show us as compassionate conservatives," said Chase. "He needs to fight the stigma of Republicans as cold-hearted, evil people."
Chase is leaning toward joining the campaign. But Bonnie Swedberg said she still needs to hear more. While praising the speech, she complained that "I didn't hear him say anything about the environment. . . . I'd like to hear him on what he'll do for the American farmer."
Swedberg plans to consider all the candidates before she decides. Bush "spoke generally and I can't disagree with anything he said. Who would disagree with someone who wanted a better America?" she said. "I want to hear more specifics."
CAPTION: Texas Gov. George W. Bush greets Iowans at Cedar Rapids airport on his first visit to the state since setting up a presidential exploratory effort.
CAPTION: Texas Gov. George W. Bush is greeted by supporter Sharon Langenberg at first stop of Bush's initial campaign trip in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Bush told a luncheon audience, "There's no turning back and I intend to be the next president."