After three weeks on the campaign trail, Texas Gov. George W. Bush finds himself at the center of a political phenomenon unlike any other in recent history. Through careful planning, skillful execution and a good bit of luck, Bush has dramatically reshaped the presidential campaign of 2000.
Whether his candidacy is a speculative bubble or the opening phase of a long, steady march to the White House can't be known at this point. But his strategy for winning the GOP nomination at least appears designed to create an aura of invincibility around his candidacy.
Bush and his advisers cannot quite believe what they're seeing, from the rush of money into his campaign in the last few weeks to the earlier consolidation of the party establishment that not even his father enjoyed in his first campaign. Even Republican strategists predict rougher days ahead.
"We're in a silly season right now," said one strategist who asked not to be identified. "I don't care about what polls say. I don't think much is registering with the electorate as a whole."
Still, for all the gravitational pull around his candidacy, there is something missing from the Bush campaign: the real substance of a presidential platform. Even as many Republicans rush to embrace him, the candidate remains in no hurry to fill in the blanks of what a Bush presidency would do. The broad themes of his candidacy, embodied in his notion of "compassionate conservatism," may be appealing to voters. But there is much more to know about him.
During three days in California, for example, Bush managed to impress both Ward Connerly, who has led the fight against racial preferences there, and, according to reports, actor and ardent Democrat Warren Beatty, who attended a private meeting between Bush and Hollywood executives. That's either the sign of a skillful politician or one who has been allowed to remain vague enough on divisive issues that he hasn't offended many voters yet.
But even at this early stage, some things are clear. Bush's remarkable success in raising money, corralling endorsements and, if polls are a useful guide, attracting significant support from Republican voters have put his rivals for the GOP nomination at a tremendous disadvantage.
Competing on a level playing field is no longer an option for his opponents. Elizabeth Dole has the name but not the money. Steve Forbes has unlimited resources but limited political support. Others are scratching for ways to blunt his momentum or simply to stay alive.
Bush's early success also has had an unnerving effect on the Democrats. They now see the Texas governor as an extremely formidable, if untested, presidential candidate, and they are increasingly worried about the weaknesses apparent in the campaign of their front-runner, Vice President Gore. Officials in the Gore campaign have attempted to put a hopeful face on events, but staff shake-ups and other moves suggest how concerned Democrats are about the campaign.
The financial and political advantages Bush holds over his rivals give him a luxury no other candidate enjoys. Sixteen months before November 2000, his campaign already has the look, feel and strategy of a general election campaign, not of someone who hasn't even won his party's nomination.
Bush spent last week appealing to the swing voters who will decide the presidential election -- and to nontraditional Republican voters, particularly Hispanics and also African Americans. As the primaries near, he may have to tend to the party's conservative base more diligently. For now, he is free to reach out.
But press secretary Karen Hughes said Bush won't change his campaign message. "When the press started asking, aren't you going to tack right for one election and then go back to the middle for another, that's not him," she said. "He says what he thinks in a very straightforward way and he says the same thing [everywhere]."
He is willing to bend the message. On Wednesday in Los Angeles, he praised a group of teachers and said he understood how hard it is to be a teacher. On Thursday in Silicon Valley, he condemned the educational oligopoly -- Republican code for the teachers' unions -- for resisting change.
If Bush's rivals for the nomination assumed he would stumble on the trail, they have been disappointed. Since leaving Texas in mid-June, Bush has campaigned in 12 states and the District. He has made some mistakes, the most commented upon when he mixed up Slovakia and Slovenia. Another came when the man who hopes to become the candidate of change started to recruit Washington lobbyists to help him win the Iowa straw poll. But in general the campaign and the candidate have performed with few glitches.
Dee Dee Myers, former White House press secretary to President Clinton, showed up in Los Angeles to watch Bush speak to the teachers and declared admiringly: "He's utterly Clintonian in his style. It's a totally Democratic audience and he connected with them." Myers also marveled at the efficiency of the nascent Bush operation, saying the staging of events was "at almost a White House level of execution."
His campaign is carefully stage-managed. Outside of the fund-raising events populated by thousands of wealthy contributors, Bush's public schedule was designed to put him in settings with audiences that produced visual images of a candidate reaching out to minority children. The photos sent just the signals Bush's campaign had hoped for, prompting a southern Democrat traveling in California last week to say the coverage of Bush there was "like the pope in south Texas."
Candidate Bush is supremely confident, even cocky. Last Wednesday afternoon he was calling signals at a football camp in Sacramento, Calif. "Sixty-two," he barked. "Seventy-seven. Thirty-six-point-two-five." The crowd broke up in laughter. The last number was a reference to the amount of money ($36.25 million) his campaign had just announced it had raised. At another stop last week, Bush referred to himself as "the president of the United States" before correcting himself. "Soon-to-be president," he said.
Like Clinton, Bush has the body language of a politician who loves to work a crowd. With the cock of his head or the shrug of a shoulder, he conveys both a sense of confidence and self-deprecation. He is a hand-shaker, a backslapper, a physical presence on the rope line -- and his audiences respond.
"I think the son has a lot of his mother in him," said Ronnie Allembaugh, who attended an Orange County fund-raiser for Bush and who knows Bush's parents. "I think he's looser and easier and has a lighter touch."
But if Bush has some of Clinton's skills as a campaigner, those talents are more evident in informal settings than in formal appearances. In a big room, standing behind a lectern, Bush can be far less commanding. The audiences at Bush's fund-raisers last week appeared more energized by his arrival than by the power of his performance at the microphone.
After three weeks on the trail, Bush is still partially reading his stump speech. It is well written and is still effective with new audiences. But Bush delivers it now with little of the punch or passion he brought to it in Iowa when he unveiled it. Some of the ready-made applause lines now fall flat; others get only a fraction of the response they did in Iowa.
But there is one sure-fire winner, when Bush, his right hand raised, says he would swear to uphold not only the Constitution, but also "the dignity of the office" of the presidency. The enthusiastic response speaks to the desire for vengeance against Clinton in the Republican Party. To the GOP establishment, Bush is their "Comeback Kid," the politician who can recapture the White House and revitalize the party. That's particularly acute in California, where the party is on its back.
"We're looking for a guy and a flag and a parade, something fierce," said Buck Johns, an Orange County developer and Republican activist. "Because we haven't been there, and we don't like it and we've been abused as a result of it. So therefore I see enthusiasm that we would not normally have."
Unlike his father, Bush appears comfortable with the media. He mugs for photographers and enjoys bantering with reporters. Last Monday night, as Bush was getting ready to leave Austin for California, New York Times reporter Richard L. Berke was being interviewed on MSNBC on the airport tarmac. Bush wandered over, walked into the live shot and took over the interview.
Still, he hasn't provided answers to a lot of questions. He has held several news conferences with traveling reporters, something Gore has not done. But many of those encounters are brief and the main news conference of the week was scheduled on the day the second-quarter fund-raising reports were due, guaranteeing that the day's stories would be dominated by good news.
Bush managed to get through three days in California without being questioned in any detail on guns, abortion or the environment -- three issues that have hurt other Republicans in the state in recent elections and on which Bush is out of step with the mainstream of the electorate. Demonstrators from the state Democratic Party and abortion rights groups trailed him throughout his visit but weren't able to get much attention.
As a result, while Bush has demonstrated his campaign skills in the first three weeks of active campaigning, he has done far less to answer the charge by Democrats that he is not ready to be president, that he lacks experience and familiarity with the world.
Asked about an earlier comment that he had a lot to learn before he became president, Bush insisted, "I will be ready." He then added, "Just because I mispronounce the name of a country doesn't mean that I don't understand how to lead." What America's going to have to be comfortable with is do I know how to set clear goals, do I know how to lead, am I going to shoot straight -- and that's all I know to do."
But Bush said he remembers his father's fall from 90 percent approval in the polls to ex-president in less than two years and added, "I take nothing for granted."
On Wednesday, the program with the teachers included the recitation of a poem by an elementary school student named London Washington. Called "The Race," it was about a boy trying to please his father by winning a race. The boy lost after stumbling several times, but gamely finished, and the moral was to keep going in the face of adversity.
"London," Bush said, "I appreciate that good advice. I'm going to carry the poem `The Race' with me for the next 16 months."
CAPTION: Texas Gov. George W. Bush signs autographs outside a restaurant in Fresno on Thursday during a three-day campaign swing in California. Bush has enjoyed early adulation without having to be specific on issues.
CAPTION: George W. Bush shows off his passing skills during Wednesday visit to a camp run by mentoring program in Sacramento, where he also attended a fund-raiser.