AUSTIN, Texas -- Gov. George W. Bush is living a charmed existence. He's richer than his famous father. He's the most popular politician in Texas. And he's on everyone's short list to be the next Republican nominee for president.
So why are some fellow Republicans acting as if Bush were a rabid armadillo? Why, for instance, did a Republican legislator literally run the other way when he spied the governor heading toward him the other day?
The answer, in a word, is taxes.
The governor has staked his popularity -- and, conceivably, his political future -- on an overhaul of the state's tax system. His sweeping plan, unveiled this year, was quickly scrapped by the Texas Legislature, which is writing its own version.
Keeping taxes down is a way of life in the Lone Star State. There is no state income tax. The overall tax burden, according to the Tax Foundation, is the third-lowest in the nation.
For years, the state relied on oil and gas revenue and sales and property taxes to pay for education and other government functions. But as oil reserves dwindled over the past decade, local property taxes doubled to help make up the difference.
Bush, who has made school finance reform a priority, is promoting a tax swap: lower property taxes for homeowners in exchange for higher taxes on businesses.
Under that plan, the average Texan would receive a slight cut in local and state taxes. But many Republican politicians worry that voters would view any change as a tax increase. Bush is gambling that they'll perceive it as a tax cut.
If the overhaul goes through -- and, at the moment, the outcome is in doubt -- Bush would receive something as well: a defining issue for a presidential campaign. As other Republicans, including Govs. John Engler of Michigan and Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, have demonstrated, reducing taxes is a sure-fire route to GOP success.
"My attitude about government, and my job here, is to do what I think is right," Bush says in an interview in his spacious office beneath the pink-granite Capitol dome.
A moderate conservative, Bush espouses the principles of limited government. But the Harvard Business School grad talks like a modern government manager when he stresses the need for "proactive" problem-solving.
"Everybody wants to read all kinds of things into 'Why has he done this? Why has he done that?' " the governor says. "All I ask for is the benefit of the doubt and to have people say, 'This is a man who anticipates a problem, sees it as significant and stands up and asks people to do something about it.' "
At the moment, he is struggling to deliver the votes of his own party's representatives. When the Texas House approved its version of tax reform recently, a majority of Republicans voted against it.
"I see no enthusiasm from Republicans in the Legislature," says Tom Pauken, the Texas Republican Party chairman, who denounced the plan as a "terrible" idea. "The only reason any of them are supporting it is because the governor is behind it."
One joke making the rounds is that whenever a Bush's poll ratings are high, his response is to raise taxes. The reference is to the 1990 budget deal in Washington that helped bring down President George Bush.
The governor's tax initiative seems to have drawn him into a feud with a conservative Republican faction that still seethes over his father's broken no-new-taxes pledge.
"If your last name is Bush, you're allowed to screw up a lot of issues. Not taxes," says Grover Norquist, a Washington-based anti-tax activist.
Norquist is spearheading a radio campaign in Texas against the tax overhaul plan. He is also faxing critiques to grass-roots groups in key presidential primary states. "If the governor thinks he's going to go around the country telling people he's a tax
cutter, I don't know who he's going to talk to," Norquist warns.
Comparisons with his father get under the governor's skin. Though he has benefited enormously from the family dynasty, he is eager to create an identity of his own. That didn't always seem to be the case.
Much like dad
For most of his life, George and Barbara's eldest son emulated Dad. He attended the same prep school and college and was tapped for the same exclusive clubs. He flew military aircraft, tried his hand at the oil business in Midland, Texas, even made a run (which was unsuccessful) for Congress, just as his father did.
More recently, George W. (he's not a Junior, lacking one of his father's middle names) has matured. He's tamed the irresponsible streak of his younger years and seems at ease with himself and his late-blooming success.
Handsome, affable and possessed of a good name, he unseated Democratic Gov. Ann Richards in the 1994 election. His job-approval ratings as governor -- the first public office he's held -- remain high. He is favored to win re-election next year, something no Texas governor has done since the 1970s.