Get ready to parry
His G.O.P. rivals can't wait to take down George W. Bush
By James Carney and John F. Dickerson/Washington
Republican presidential challengers have tried everything to goad Texas Governor George W. Bush off his front porch in Austin. What's he afraid of? they've asked. He's nothing but a name, they've whispered. But Bush has just smiled--his poll numbers have stayed stratospheric and the satchels full of checks are still coming in to his ZIP code. Last week Elizabeth Dole threw a tomato. Though she did not mention Bush by name, the former Cabinet secretary launched a verbal missile in the post-Littleton gun-control debate, declaring that it was "wrong to let people carry concealed weapons." Her target was obvious. Bush, who had signed a 1995 law allowing Texans to tuck registered handguns into their purses and coat pockets, fired back through a spokesman on the same day. Texans were now safer, came the riposte, "particularly women who work late hours or who travel."
Dole's zinger on guns--and the Bush operation's rapid response--were just a preview to the political cut and thrust that will begin next month, when the Governor is scheduled to wrap up the legislative session in Austin and make his first campaign trips to Iowa and New Hampshire. Frustrated by Bush's dominance of the race, some rival campaigns have dispatched operatives to Texas to scour newspaper clippings and state budget reports, pick over old speeches and offhand remarks, quiz Bush enemies and even some old friends, all in search of information they can use to diminish Bush's aura of invincibility. The goal: to use Bush's record and his status as the chosen candidate of the G.O.P. establishment against him. Warns an operative working for another candidate: "From the minute George W. hits the campaign trail, he'll be under assault and on the defensive." Here is an early target list being compiled by Bush's opponents:
The imperial candidate
Jealous rivals will try to turn Bush's high poll numbers into a liability by accusing him of remaining aloof from primary voters. Each time he skips a cattle call for candidates or dodges a debate, he'll be slammed for taking rank-and-file Republicans for granted. The Bush campaign's quiet efforts to avoid a presidential straw poll scheduled for early August in Ames, Iowa, have angered some Iowa Republicans. Not that Bush's view of Ames as a booby trap isn't justified. Straw polls--where participants pay to vote--can be manipulated by rivals to make front runners look bad. Bush's rivals are already starting. They claim that Bush cutouts floated the idea of "reimbursing" the state G.O.P. for canceling the event. When that didn't work, they quietly inquired whether other big-name campaigns might join Bush in skipping Ames, hoping to render it meaningless. The Bush camp denies both charges.
True believers don't believe Bush, and true believers vote. Gary Bauer, Dan Quayle, Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes will all speak to this constituency, arguing that while Bush is pro-life, he doesn't really mean it. He won't push for a constitutional amendment that bans abortions, and though he wants the procedure to be "rare"--a squishy phrase they'll remind audiences that Clinton has used--Bush has not made saving the unborn a priority while in office. That may change slightly in a few weeks if the Texas legislature passes a Bush proposal requiring doctors to contact parents of minors seeking abortions. With fresh legislation and the blessing of his position by religious leaders like Pat Robertson, Bush hopes to win the support of "pragmatic" social conservatives and leave the vocal absolutists to be split among his rivals.
Taxes and spending
If you are a Republican and you have ever raised a tax in your political life, it is sure to be used in a campaign commercial against you. Which is why the admakers for the anybody-but-Bush campaigns will be busy indeed. Their drama will begin in 1997 when Bush offered an ambitious $2.8 billion tax cut that just happened to also include a number of tax increases (one enterprising campaign counts 75). Never mind that Bush can claim credit for signing the largest tax cut in Texas history; rivals will say he merely tacked his name onto a measure authored by the legislature. Enter the comptroller of the Texas currency, who may become the Governor's best friend. Last week an additional $800 million was found in the Texas budget, which may provide enough money to allow Bush to claim credit for delivering another large tax cut. Good news is also coming from the CATO institute. The notoriously fussy Washington think tank gives the Governor high marks for holding the line on spending during his tenure.
The education governor?
On this issue Bush should be untouchable. During his time in office, test scores have gone up, spending on education has increased, and by the end of the session, his bill ending the automatic promotion of failing students is likely to have passed. Even the Democrats sing his praises--and that's the problem. Conservatives say the Governor's successes have come by--gasp!--working with teachers' unions, and Bush hasn't pushed very hard for the one and only true education reform: school vouchers.
Bush's name may be his greatest asset, but opponents, both Republicans and Democrats like Al Gore, are preparing to embarrass George "Dubbuya" by wheeling out George Senior at every turn. "You know he was never really one of us" will be the refrain of conservatives, who count the elder's failed promise of "no new taxes" in 1988 as one of the greatest betrayals in Republican Party history. They will also compare George W.'s warm relations with Texas Democrats to his father's "accommodationist" approach toward the other party on Capitol Hill. And they are already suggesting that the son has got as far as he has only by using his father's connections: Tennessee's Lamar Alexander pointedly insists that the presidency cannot be "inherited." The Bush response, by spokeswoman Karen Hughes: "The Governor is very proud of his father, but he's a different person."
One way in which George W. is distinctly not like his father is in the realm of foreign policy. The Governor's first tentative response to the Kosovo crisis exposed his inexperience, and his later attempts to articulate a more forceful position sounded instead like the product of a blue-chip committee of foreign policy advisers, which it was. Quayle has already slagged the front runner by warning that America can't afford another President who needs "on the job training" in foreign affairs, and Senator John McCain has made leadership on matters of war and peace a litmus test of presidential character for the 2000 election. Even if foreign policy is not a major issue in the election, Bush's handling of it could raise the larger question about whether, with just 41/2 years of experience in office, he is ready to be the leader of the free world.
With his enemies gearing up for an all-out assault, Bush will need to find the right voices to come to his defense. Last week he enlisted one of the best: his popular mother put her signature below her son's latest fund-raising letter. "There are other fine candidates running for President," writes Barbara Bush. "Having said that, we firmly believe George is the leader we need as we head into the next century." When you're preparing to defend yourself against 10 opponents, the most effective weapon in politics, after money, is Mom.
MORE TIME STORIES:
Cover Date: May 24, 1999
The Tipper effect
Brainy economist Larry Summers replaces Wall Street wizard Robert Rubin
His G.O.P. rivals can't wait to take down George W. Bush
All in the family
Sensing disaster, a Littleton-addled G.O.P. tries to fix its fumble on gun control