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  Bush Wasn't Always a Front-Runner

By Michael Holmes
Associated Press Writer
Sunday, Oct. 17, 1999; 11:40 a.m. EDT

AUSTIN, Texas –– On the stump, George W. Bush was for business, against government regulation and intent on running as his own man despite a well-known father.

"Responsibility," he said, "is a good thing to learn."

The year: 1978.

Bush was making his first bid for elected office – for a House seat. He lost.

Much has changed since that congressional campaign. Much has stayed the same.

"He was conservative and a personable young man," says Jane Anne Stinnett of Lubbock. "Still is."


Bush was in the oil business in Midland, his childhood hometown, when he announced his candidacy in July 1977 for the House seat representing West Texas' 19th District.

"George just drove into town one day and started walking down a strip mall shopping center," said Mike Weiss, who was to become his Lubbock campaign chairman. "I happened to be in a men's store. He walked up and introduced himself. I liked him." The two met again the next day, talked, "and I signed on."

West Texas in 1978, like much of the state, was solidly Democratic. No Republican had been elected governor in 100 years. Democrats controlled politics from the Statehouse to the courthouses.

"There was a pretty general feeling that Republicans couldn't get elected," Weiss said.

But Bush's first problem was not a Democrat; it was the GOP primary.

He was challenged by Jim Reese, a conservative Republican and former Odessa mayor who was defeated two years earlier in a bid for the House seat, and Joe Hickox of Shallowater. Bush led the primary with 6,296 votes and bested Reese in a runoff.

Bush's general election opponent, Democrat Kent Hance, was a state senator from Lubbock, the district's biggest city.

There were not many philosophical disagreements. Bush said Hance would make a good Republican. Hance said Bush would make a good conservative Democrat.

"On issues of oil and gas, inflation, national defense, the public works bill and extension of time to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, Hance and Bush were as compatible as two warts on a toad," the Midland Reporter-Telegram wrote.

Hance, who now practices law in Austin, recalls that they were asked about gun control at a forum. "Every candidate was against it. When they finally got down to me, I said, 'Not only am I against it – if they ever pass it and try to get your guns, I'll come over to your house and help you.' Even Bush laughed at that."

Bush's campaign speeches were peppered with lines today's audiences will recognize.

On the economy: Government "should help people realize their American dream. People should be given a chance to realize their own ambitions."

On personal responsibility: "In my view, individuals need to solve their own problems. The federal government hurts what we are trying to achieve."

On negative campaigning: "Our whole thing is to keep it positive. People are tired of negative politicians ... I'm convinced people are looking for somebody to say, 'Here's what's good.'"

On the influence of his father, who had been a congressman, U.S. Senate candidate, GOP chairman, CIA director and U.S. envoy to China: "We don't need dad in this race."

Hance made an issue of Bush's family ties and his prep school, Ivy League education. He even poked fun at Bush's jogging.

"We tried to make it Texas Tech vs. Yale. And in that district, the Red Raiders will beat the Bulldogs every time," Hance recalls.

Bush responded, "Would you like me to run as Sam Smith? The problem is I can't abandon my background. I'm not trying to hide behind any facade."

Bush proved a tough opponent.

"Our original strategy was that I'd be the good guy next door, and Bush would be the outsider," Hance said.

"After a few months, at a strategy session, one of my guys said, 'You know, he's turning out to be a good ol' boy.' After that, Bush was the guy next door – but I'd be in their house, one of the relatives."

Then, as now, Bush was a prodigious fund-raiser. Between July 1 and Sept. 30, he raised $207,558. Hance pulled in just $74,822.

A "Bush Bash" ad in Texas Tech's student newspaper offered "free beer-music." Hance's campaign launched an 11th-hour attack, but he says he does not think that played a role in the outcome.

A key factor, both sides agree, was demographics.

Bush's background was in the oil business and Midland was an oil town. Lubbock and much of the rest of the High Plains district was farm and ranch country. Lubbock was Hance territory. He had represented much of the region in the state Senate.

"Hance worked the rural areas extremely well. He had friendships built up over 10, 15 years that were impossible to overcome in the period of time we had," Weiss said. "If they had played that football game another quarter, we'd have won."

Hance says Election Day arrived in the nick of time.

"It was Bush's first campaign, and he improved every week. By the end of the race, he was an excellent candidate. I really didn't want another month of campaigning. There was no doubt in my mind that I didn't want to face him again, either," Hance said.

When the votes were counted, Hance had 54,729; Bush got 48,070.

The Democrat went to Congress, backed Ronald Reagan's tax cut and eventually became a Republican.

Bush went back to the oil business in Midland and eventually bought a piece of the Texas Rangers baseball team.

When Bush announced plans in 1993 to challenge popular Democratic Gov. Ann Richards, one of his first contributions was a $10,000 check from Kent Hance.

"When I handed him that check, he laughed and said, 'Fifteen years ago a lot of people from Midland wouldn't have believed this,'" Hance recalled. "I said a lot of people from Lubbock wouldn't have believed it, either."

© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press

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