Certain questions come up in town meetings year after year, primary after primary. Taxes. Education. Abortion. Health care.
This was one rarely put into words: A supporter of Texas Gov. George W. Bush rose to ask--in the nicest possible way, hemming and hawing and obviously uncomfortable--whether Bush is, you know, well . . . dumb.
"Intellectually curious" was the gentle phrase the man used. But Bush did not miss the point of the question. "They're saying I'm not, uh, very smart," he said, and the audience in Bedford's whitewashed old Town Hall laughed. Was it a nervous laugh? A laugh of amazement--hey, who ever thought they'd hear a presidential candidate say that? Maybe it was an expression of relief, to hear Bush put into words the fact that was on everyone's mind.
Bush's poll numbers in this influential first primary state have dropped sharply in recent days, and he now appears to have fallen behind Sen. John McCain of Arizona. In debates and on the stump, Bush is also facing more and more questions designed to test his intelligence--and so far, at least, he has failed to put the matter to rest.
When his plane landed here Wednesday, Bush could have visited the airport newsstand and found big stories in the New York Times and the Boston Globe questioning his intelligence. After his first campaign stop, he invited two reporters from the Boston Herald aboard his bus for an interview. Bam! The brainpower question.
Now here he was at the end of that bus ride, under the antique tin ceiling of the Bedford Town Hall, speaking to his usual packed house, answering questions in a relaxed, rambling, free-associative kind of way--and the IQ question was laid out for everyone to hear.
"I'd rather be underestimated than overestimated," Bush answered. He flashed a grin and paused. "I've been underestimated before." Another grin, another pause.
"And Governor Richards regrets it!"
That would be Ann Richards, the liberal stemwinder who was, once upon a time, governor of the great state of Texas. She wanted to be governor again. It was 1994 and Richards was running for reelection against George W. Bush, with whom she was not terribly impressed.
She liked to call him "shrub."
On Election Day, Shrub had the last laugh.
Clearly, Bush is relying on the same strategy to win the White House that he used to beat Richards. What some people take for ignorance looks to Bush supporters like simple conservatism.
Sure, Democrats Al Gore and Bill Bradley have detailed answers to every imaginable question. To conservatives, that's a minus. They think the government shouldn't try to answer every question.
Bush likes to run on a very simple platform. In Texas in 1994, he repeated the same four ideas in every speech he gave, in every answer to every question. When he gave his first address to the legislature, he gave them the same four points.
Then, for those who might be bored by the repetition, he offered a fifth program: "Pass the first four."
In speech after speech during a packed 24 hours of campaigning in southern New Hampshire, Bush harped on a similarly streamlined agenda. He talked about education--not complicated education plans, mostly just a promise to make sure children know how to read and add. He promised to cut taxes. He extolled free trade. He said he would conduct himself with dignity.
Those few points--wrapped up with a smile and a hymn to freedom and opportunity--are the conceptual framework of Bush 2000. When other questions came up, he either answered them or skirted them, but only briefly. Then he steered himself right back to his core points.
His small agenda, he told audiences, reflects his conservative philosophy. "Government can't solve every problem. Government oughta do a few things and do them well."
This approach is reminiscent of Ronald Reagan, who is Bush's favorite of all the presidents who were not his father. Reagan was famous for holding to a few ideas and seeing all issues in those terms. And he, like Bush, gave some people the impression he wasn't exactly the brightest bulb in the chandelier.
Some pretty big issues haven't made it onto Bush's core agenda, but that doesn't mean he isn't asked about them. At meetings in Nashua, Bedford and Manchester he fielded questions about health care, long-term care, trade deficits and so on. And he tended to ramble on these in a way that could give the impression that he does not, in fact, know much about them.
"I don't think he understood," said David Kutcher, who hit Bush with a pretty nuanced question about long-term care at the Bedford Town Hall session. Kutcher added that he wasn't sure many members of Congress--or the president--really understand the long-term care issue.
It must be said that Bush looks awfully chipper for a man under the gun.
Yesterday morning, bright and early, he strode happily into Blake's, a popular Goffstown breakfast spot. Actually, "popular breakfast spot" is redundant in New Hampshire. The state motto is "Live Free or Die" but could just as easily be, "two eggs over medium, a short stack and the bacon, please."
He plopped himself onto a stool between two guys at the counter, smiled and asked, "How can a guy get a cuppa coffee around here?" After a few minutes at the counter, Bush sprang up and began working the booths. He is a very physical hand-shaker. He pats backs, grabs biceps, nudges, winks. He cooed over waitress Josee Hansen when she brought him some coffee and took note of her French Canadian accent.
This ritual would be the worst experience of Donald Trump's life. Bush not only shakes hands with commoners, he doesn't even wait for them to wipe the toast crumbs from their fingers. And he seems to love it.
Darting back and forth across Goffstown's Main Street in search of more hands to shake, Bush passed a car idling at the crosswalk. The driver rolled down his window and passed him his cell phone. Without missing a beat, the candidate took it and announced, "Hi! You from New Hampshire? I'm George Bush and I'd like your vote!"
And he seemed smart enough for the eggheads of the Software Association of New Hampshire. They heard a speech by Bush and quizzed him in Manchester, then gave him a standing ovation.
Still . . . the shadow.
"Do you support LIHEAP?" a reporter asked during a press conference in Nashua. (This is, of course, a program to help poor people pay for heat in cold places and air conditioning in hot places.)
Everyone caught their breath--a tricky acronym. Would he get it?
"I do," Bush answered easily. "As I understand, it's about $5 billion, right?"