Austin rehearsals are over

Bush ready to step onstage

Political expectations high for candidate's first national trip

June 02, 1999|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

AUSTIN, Texas -- Never in recent times has so much been expected from a presidential contender with so little national experience. But Gov. George W. Bush believes he has found a way to contain the outsized expectations for his candidacy.

"Just tell people I'm not as cool as they think," he confides, laughing.

Americans can soon judge for themselves. The 52-year-old Texan is revving up for campaign trips this month to more than a dozen states, his first as a presidential prospect.

"As high as the bar is, the governor is going to surprise some people by how good a campaigner he is," says Mark McKinnon, his media adviser, who doesn't underestimate the challenge facing Bush. "He's literally walking out on the world stage for the first time. And there will be a lot of people watching."

Bush's emergence, after months of self-imposed quarantine in Texas, has political insiders buzzing with the sort of anticipation that greeted the release of the latest "Star Wars" movie. Will he click with voters outside his home state? Or will his front-running candidacy turn out to have been a phantom menace?

"Nobody really knows," says Scott Reed, manager of Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign, who credits the Bush operation with doing everything right so far.

Bush says he's hoping for "big crowds and enthusiasm and a chance to fire up our organization" when he hits the road next week. Others are waiting to see if he's merely another highly touted Lone Star State politician who couldn't make the presidential grade, a list of spectacular failures that includes Democrat Lloyd Bentsen in 1976 and Republicans John B. Connally in 1980 and Sen. Phil Gramm in 1996.

Until now, Bush has stuck close to the governor's mansion in Austin, ostensibly to oversee the Legislature's session, which ended Monday. He has used that time to wage a highly successful front-porch campaign, wooing hundreds of party officials and fund-raisers who flew in almost daily from across the nation.

He has also prepared intensively for his national debut, honing his stump speech at closed-door sessions with aides and supporters and boning up on national and international issues with an array of policy advisers, including former members of his father's administration.

He has managed to dictate the pace and timing of the Republican campaign, while avoiding media scrutiny.

And he has commanded a lopsided lead in early polls and raised more money in a shorter period than any non-incumbent presidential contender ever. At the end of this month, Bush is expected to report record contributions for the first half of the year, possibly in excess of $20 million, positioning himself to pass up federal matching funds -- and spending limits -- in next year's compressed primary season.

The Republican establishment, thirsty for a winner, has embraced his undeclared candidacy with near total abandon.

His boyish charm, famous name and outsider credentials are obvious selling points. So too, is his success in working with the Democratic opposition in Texas, in sharp contrast to the bitter partisanship and internecine squabbles that have crippled Republicans in Washington.

Moreover, his proven appeal to home-state Hispanic voters is seen as one way to soften the image of intolerance that has burdened GOP candidates in national elections.

What makes the enthusiasm for Bush remarkable is his rather skimpy political resume (five years ago, he'd never won an election) and his lack of seasoning as a national candidate (he did, however, unseat a highly regarded Democratic incumbent, Ann W. Richards, in 1994, and gain re-election by a landslide last fall in the second-most-populous state).

According to every major voter survey, Bush is the favorite to become the next president. Yet few Americans know anything about him, beyond his name and title.

Even in his home state, where he's enormously popular, he remains something of a mystery. "Who is George W. Bush?" asks the latest cover of Texas Monthly magazine.

Bush will begin providing answers over the next few months, aides say. Using broad strokes, he'll define himself, his brand of "compassionate conservatism" and what sort of president he'd like to be.

Last night Bush attended the first fund-raiser of his presidential drive, in San Antonio. Next week, he'll take off on his first campaign swing, to Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, accompanied by a planeload of more than 100 journalists.

Hoping to lower expectations, aides say he's bound to stumble as he enters the national arena for the first time. But they've crossed their fingers that any mistakes will be minor ones -- since every Bush flub is sure to be magnified by an international press contingent eager to take his measure.

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