Lone star rising
George W. Bush is so far ahead in the race for the G.O.P. nomination, some call him a sure bet. While he decides whether to run, he's running hard
By James Carney and John F. Dickerson
March 8, 1999
The talk, at first, was all about policy--Texas Governor George W. Bush holding forth in front of 10 Florida moneymen. But the visitors at this mid-January luncheon in the Governor's mansion in Austin hadn't come to discuss ways to improve education or reduce teen pregnancy. They were there to support a Bush campaign for President, and some were worried about his resolve. Recent news reports suggested the Governor might be having second thoughts about putting his wife Laura and their twin 17-year-old daughters through the media onslaught of a campaign. "We're ready to work for you," said one of the donors, "but we're hearing your wife and daughters don't want you to run."
Bush smiled and leaned forward. "Let me tell y'all something," he drawled. "I love my wife. And I love my daughters. I would lie down and die for 'em. But they don't have a veto on this." Then he became even more blunt, handicapping his opponents for the Republican nomination, counting the ways in which he was stronger. Dan Quayle, he predicted, won't be able to raise enough money to compete. Neither would Elizabeth Dole, whose candidacy Bush called a relief because she drew some of the heat away from him. Steve Forbes and his bottomless checkbook worry Bush the most, but in the end, he concluded, Forbes isn't electable. At lunches like this one, staff members hand departing visitors a long, favorable article on Al Gore. The message: Republicans have to pick a winner, someone with enough general-election appeal to beat the Vice President in 2000. Says a participant: "He wanted to leave the clear impression that he's running and he can win."
No one who has made the pilgrimage to Austin has any doubt: George W. Bush is running for President. And last week he began sharing the news with the public. After months of coy political theater--feigned reticence meant to stoke interest, with allies circulating wholly unnecessary draft-Bush petitions--he finally stood still long enough to announce the formation of a presidential exploratory committee. The 10-member committee was put together with symbolism in mind. By making former Secretary of State George Shultz a committee member, Bush, 52, showed fealty not to his father's Administration but to Ronald Reagan's--a message aimed squarely at conservatives who never felt comfortable with President Bush. The other message is one of inclusion: for a party that is often criticized as too Southern, too male and too white, Bush's committee of men, women and minorities boasts almost Clintonian diversity.
The announcement lifted the lid from a pre-campaign that has been simmering for nearly a year, during which time Bush and his small Texas operation have assembled a cadre of top-flight policy advisers, locked in major donors from around the country and stirred up so much giddy anticipation among G.O.P. activists that there is already wild talk about Bush's invincibility. Scores of fund raisers, party wise men and elected officials have made the trek to Austin in recent months, and most seem to have come away with the same feeling as Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating. "I have met the victor," Keating says of Bush. "And it is he."
After getting skunked in the past two presidential elections and taking a pasting in the 1998 midterms, Republicans are desperate for a winner. And Bush is nothing if not that: he upset incumbent Ann Richards in 1994 to become Governor of what is now the second largest state, won re-election last fall with 69% of the vote, and currently boasts job-approval ratings among Texans that top 80%. His success at co-opting traditional Democratic issues such as education--and boosting from 37% to 65% the number of black and Hispanic students passing key statewide tests--has helped lure women and minorities to his camp. And, in a party often at war with itself, his charm has kept social conservatives from deserting him without alienating moderates--and vice versa. No wonder Bush has victory-starved Republicans salivating. "This is being driven by a pervasive terror in the ranks of Republicans," concedes one of his outside advisers. "If we lose the White House in 2000, we'll lose another third of the federal judiciary and two more Supreme Court Justices. And we'll lose the House. We're staring into the abyss, and a lot of Republicans feel Bush is the only one who can save us."
So the race is on to sign up with the savior. Thirteen of the nation's 31 G.O.P. Governors have already hitched their wagon to Bush's lone star, and several more are about to. Republican state legislators across the country are rushing to write draft-Bush letters before he makes it official. Ninety percent of Republicans in the South Carolina house have signed on, and 75% of the G.O.P. in Iowa's house and senate. The numbers are similar in California and New Mexico. And those who hand-deliver the letters to Bush leave even more love sick than when they came, quoting passages from his second inaugural address and describing in near mythic terms his intellect, candor and vision. "There is a twinkle in his eye," gushes Iowa state representative Chuck Larson, who led the draft movement in his early-caucus state. "He's a giant walking onto this playing field."
Such over-the-top pronouncements are enough to make one start rooting for the other shoe to drop--the mistake that could cause George W. to stumble in the early primaries the way so many anointed front runners have before him. To guard against that, Bush has been working what might be called a cream-stationery strategy--dashing off notes to potential supporters in key states. Shortly after New Hampshire house speaker Donna Sytek was quoted in a newspaper article as saying she hadn't chosen a candidate to support, a handwritten letter arrived from the Texas Governor: "I hope good people can wait." The note worked: Sytek is waiting--even though Dole has asked her to come aboard. Sytek says she won't make up her mind until she meets Bush in person. Letter writing runs in the family. New Hampshire G.O.P. activist Mike Dagostino recently heard from the Governor's father. "You know how much the Bush family values loyalty," wrote the former President. "You have been a loyal friend."
But the family name is a blessing and a curse. To tear Bush down, rival camps have tried to paste him with the labels they once used to bury his dad--"tax raiser," "moderate," "Establishment." They also pose litmus-test questions related to the elder Bush's White House years. Does the Governor support the repeal of his father's 1990 tax increase? Will he renounce the broken "no new taxes" pledge? Are we saddled with Saddam now because his father didn't finish the job in Iraq? In private meetings Bush has been quick to say that he is not afraid to distance himself from the 41st President's legacy. His father himself smoothed the way, writing a note to George W. and his brother Jeb, now the Governor of Florida, urging them not to feel burdened by their old man. A famously fierce defender of his father when he worked in the White House, George W. likes to point out that he has a record of his own now, one he hopes to augment this year with a passel of goodies that should please G.O.P. conservatives--a $2.6 billion state-tax cut, a plan to end social promotion in public schools, a pilot program for school vouchers.
Bush has also kept his distance from most of his father's top political and policy advisers. "I want you to know that Dick Darman is nowhere in my campaign, and he never will be," he told one gathering, referring to the former Budget Director whom conservatives blame for President Bush's 1990 tax increase. For political advice, the Governor leans heavily on Karl Rove, the premier Texas political consultant who crafted the Bush victories in 1994 and 1998. Rove, a mild son of the New South who will run Bush's presidential campaign in fact if not in title, is so committed to the Governor that two weeks ago, at Bush's request, he sold his private consulting company. The Texas brain trust Rove heads--including Bush communications director Karen Hughes, chief of staff Joe Allbaugh and finance chairman Don Evans--will form the nucleus of the campaign team. Bush isn't leaning on Beltway types, but he has sought the counsel of former New York Representative Bill Paxon. And through Paxon, he found the woman he wants as his campaign's political director--Maria Cino, a party operative who in 1994 helped orchestrate the G.O.P.'s takeover of the House.
The hardest group for Bush to woo is social conservatives who never believed President Bush cared about them after Election Day. To win their hearts, he has turned to former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed for advice. In late January Bush made a rare out-of-state journey to see coalition founder Pat Robertson in Chesapeake, Va. The Governor did not seek--or receive--an endorsement, but suggested he was not a threat. "He loves the Lord," Robertson said privately after the meeting.
Bush has also spoken to Richard and Elisabeth DeVos, benefactors of a wide range of socially conservative organizations, including the Family Research Council, whose president, Gary Bauer, is on leave to run for President. The Michigan couple flew to Austin for a private dinner with the Governor and his wife. Bush said the blessing and spent the evening talking about his positions and beliefs. The DeVoses went home impressed. "It was clearly an effort not only to inform but to persuade," says Betsy DeVos, who, as chair of the Michigan state G.O.P., can't endorse a primary candidate. Bush knows that some would-be supporters are worried that there may have been an indiscretion during his years as a heavy-drinking party boy that could turn into a 6-in. tabloid headline during the campaign. So Bush assures people like the DeVoses that he never did anything that, if discovered, would disqualify him as a candidate. "The difference between me and Clinton," Bush likes to say, "is that we both made mistakes, but I learned from mine. I grew up."
The risk for Bush is that when he explains his position on divisive social issues such as abortion, he seems to communicate what his audiences want to hear. He manages to satisfy pro-life-movement leaders like the DeVoses without spooking pro-choice Republicans like New Jersey state senator Diane Allen, who left a meeting convinced that Bush would not make the fight against abortion a feature of his campaign. "He made it clear that this is not an issue that can be legislated," says Allen. Hearing that may not rile conservatives half as much as the news that Bush is planning his own "Sister Souljah" moment. Sources close to Bush say he may stage a high-profile break with social conservatives over some issue as a way of declaring his independence from his party's radical wing--much as Bill Clinton did when he infuriated orthodox liberals by condemning the rap singer in 1992 for lyrics that incited violence against whites.
As welcome as it has been in Austin, the excitement over Bush has raised expectations to a level no mere politician can hope to meet. The Governor has been topping G.O.P. primary polls for months; in the latest TIME/CNN poll, he is 30 points ahead of his nearest challenger, Dole. And he leads Gore 52% to 41%.
And yet to most Americans--even most Republicans--he is an empty vessel into which they're being invited to pour their hopes and dreams. They know he is his father's son--a little tougher, a little more country--and they may know he's a popular Governor. But that's all. Which means that once the campaign begins in earnest, well-financed contenders like Forbes and scrappy underdogs like Pat Buchanan and Gary Bauer will start trying to define Bush themselves, and the picture won't be pretty. "We don't know if this guy can take a punch," Buchanan has said privately. The Governor may survive, but he will certainly suffer. The sudden flameouts of presidential front runners, of course, can make Internet stocks look dull. Says a Bush team member: "This is the best it will be for the next year."
--With reporting by S.C. Gwynne/Austin
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Cover Date: March 15, 1999
The story within the story
Lone star rising
A realist faces reality
More Chinese fireworks