George W. Bush warms up for the great run

June 03, 1999|By David M. Shribman

AUSTIN, Texas -- For 110 years, the promenade leading from the southern entrance of the state Capitol here, 500 feet long and bordered by a rounded limestone curve and a row of oaks, has been known as the Great Walk. And for more than a century it has been the pedestrian thoroughfare for the rogues, scoundrels, schemers and dreamers who conspired, cajoled or campaigned their way into the governor's office.

Next week, one of their heirs, George W. Bush, will take the Great Walk on route to the great run.

There are cannons to the left and right of the checkerboard concrete diamonds that make up the path from the capitol, but they are ornamental. There also will be cannons to Mr. Bush's left and right once he finally leaves Austin to campaign for president, but they will not be for show. They will be for real -- and then we will discover whether Mr. Bush, a front-runner who has run for only one public office in his life, is for real.

For nearly a year, while his rivals have lingered in coffee shops in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and declaimed at veterans' halls in the White Mountains, Mr. Bush has run a campaign suited to the time and temperament of William McKinley, a Republican who won the presidency a century ago without hardly leaving the rocking chair on his Ohio porch.

Now the great irony is dawning on the man who begins the great run: The candidate who leads the GOP pack without greeting a single voter in Iowa and New Hampshire is about to go on location. As a result, his stage trial that begins next week is far more important than if he had taken a more traditional glide path to the campaign tarmac.

Prime time candidate

A slip-up made last October -- say, confusing Macedonia with Montenegro or mixing up soybean price supports with Step 2 cotton payments -- and hardly anybody would have cared. Heck, hardly anyone would have even noticed. But slip up in June -- when the great tease has finally ended -- and watch the vultures pick apart the carrion of your campaign.

George H.W. Bush, the father, believed that momentum was everything; the son believes that timing is everything. And at the heart of this Bush campaign, being planned behind security doors on the second floor of an Austin office building, where the staircases consist of steel and glass, is the governor's conviction that this is his moment.

He believes this is the end of a periodic swing between Democrats and Republicans in the White House. He sees this as a time when the public yearns for someone new but someone proven. And he calculates this is a juncture when the premium may be more on a new outlook than on a loose-leaf notebook jammed with new ideas.

When they were growing up, the Bush boys with the political touch seemed to be Jeb, or Marvin, or Neil, anyone but George W., who was so irresponsible, so unfocused, but so much fun. In truth, he showed so little potential in the early days of his gubernatorial race in 1994 that Karl Rove, his strategist, wrote an internal memo advising that the campaign "limit GWB's public appearance." He was that untested, that prone to injury, that bad in public.

A salesman

No longer. He's at ease, he's prepared, he may even be fluent in national political issues. "I know something about selling," says Kim Brimer, the Republican chairman of the state House Business and Industry Committee and an insurance executive, "and he can sell."

The outlines of the sales pitch are clear already. Team Bush will portray the governor as successful, activist and conservative, with an emphasis on limited government, lower taxes, local control and personal responsibility. The phrase "compassionate conservatism" gives his rivals fits, and that is only one reason why you will hear it everywhere you turn. His campaign strategists think it is "the first big new idea of the 2000 campaign."

At the heart of that idea is the notion that Republicans have an obligation to apply their conservative principles to the problems of the poor. "When he uses phrases like `prosperity with a purpose,' Mr. Bush means we ought to use our successful market economy in a way that helps those who haven't benefited yet," says Stephen Goldsmith, the mayor of Indianapolis and a Bush adviser. "The principles aren't an excuse to withdraw from difficult populations or circumstances. That's a new way of thinking for Republicans."

Winning minority votes

Many Republican primary voters haven't even thought about that new way of thinking, of course. But they know Mr. Bush has a new kind of appeal. (He took 49 percent of the Hispanic vote, 27 percent of the black vote, in 1998.) They know he's the front-runner (and Republicans almost always vote for the front-runner, which is the major explanation for Bob Dole's nomination three years ago).

"He doesn't go looking for a fight," says state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, Republican of Angleton, south of Houston. "But if a fight presents itself, he can take it and win it just about every day."

Now, at the end of the Great Walk, a fight is presenting itself. The great run is about to begin.

David M. Shribman is Washington bureau chief for the Boston Globe.

Pub Date: 6/03/99

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