Bush prepares to enter presidential fray 2000

Campaign: With the state Legislature over, the Texas governor will travel to Iowa and New Hampshire.

June 06, 1999|By PHILIP TERZIAN

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON-- Now that the legislative season has ended in Texas, the presidential campaign of Gov. George W. Bush is about to begin.

Perhaps "begin" is not the right word; Bush has been a candidate for several months. But his campaign style -- raising funds, meeting privately with potential supporters, shepherding bills through the Texas House and Senate -- doesn't resonate with journalists, who would rather see their subjects traveling on buses, shaking hands, giving speeches and exclusive interviews to reporters. Now they will get their wish. This week, Bush travels to Iowa and New Hampshire, and a formal announcement of candidacy cannot be far behind. Seventeen months before the election, Campaign 2000 is officially under way.

Bush was always insistent that he would put off campaigning until the legislative session in Austin was finished -- the Texas Legislature meets every other year -- and he was true to his word.

It was a successful session: He raised teachers' salaries, as he said he would, and he cut taxes, as he promised to do in the last election. As usual, Texas Democrats and Republicans were united in their praise of the governor.

But these accomplishments were achieved at some cost to his ambition. Journalists have been frustrated that Bush refused to be drawn from his duties, and pundits have used the interval to complain about his reticence. His most formidable rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, got some nice publicity with his call to arms in Kosovo; and his wealthiest challenger, publisher Steve Forbes, has been putting together a package of expensive television ads. Bush gambled that the public, in mid-1999, would be willing to wait for him to join the circus, and he was probably right. It is dangerously easy to get weary of presidential candidates.

Still, the governor has been warned: The long knives are out. Since it became evident that Bush was the prohibitive favorite for the Republican nomination, the great organs of the national press -- the New York Times, the Washington Post, etc. -- have been ransacking records and dredging lakes to find bodies.

None has been found, but that has only compounded the danger. The Times and Post are clearly frustrated by their inability to find the Bush equivalent of Gennifer Flowers or a controlling legal authority, and frustrated journalists are usually angry journalists. Their coverage of the Texas governor has a carping, slightly contemptuous tone that will only worsen with time.

At the same time, the governor has reason to be gratified. His poll numbers seem to climb with every pronouncement he does not make, and the frenetic efforts of Vice President Al Gore to make himself a plausible successor to Clinton have not worked so well. While Bush proceeds from strength to strength in Texas, Gore has chosen the suburbs as enemy No. 1, and claimed to invent the Internet. The Bush numbers rise, the Gore numbers fall, and even Bill Clinton was moved to advise his heir apparent on the front page of the New York Times how to run for national office.

The Democrats are plainly concerned. In Congress, the White House has effectively blocked efforts to reform Social Security and Medicare, fearing their potential as a Republican issue. And when the Cox Report was released, detailing the administration's extraordinary misconduct in the face of Chinese nuclear espionage, the White House grudgingly accepted its findings and dispatched the malodorous James Carville to rage and sputter on television.

Best of all, from Bush's point of view, have been the shots across the bow from party headquarters. Tony Coelho, recruited by Tipper Gore to resuscitate her husband's faltering candidacy, has complained that the two-term governor of the nation's second-largest state has been operating in the "minor leagues," as opposed to his patron, Al Gore. And Roy Romer, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has contributed to the debate by casting aspersions on Bush's character.

Perhaps Coelho, whose financial misadventures caused him to resign from Congress one step ahead of prosecutors in 1989, should be reminded that the incumbent chief executive rose to his eminence from the governor's mansion in Little Rock, Ark. And for Romer to raise the subject of character and leadership is extraordinary in itself: When Romer was forced to acknowledge the existence of a longtime mistress two years ago, he dragged his long-suffering wife in front of the cameras to give himself cover.

There is one measure of the Democrats' anxiety: Faced with what Bush can achieve with little effort, they lower the pitch to the tone of the Clinton White House. This is a favorable early warning sign George W. Bush is the candidate that Albert Gore fears, but a warning nonetheless.

Philip Terzian is associate editor of the Providence Journal, where this article first appeared.

Pub Date: 06/06/99

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