Bush: rookie of the year

June 18, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

BEDFORD, N.H. -- It is already a cliche to say that the news media have gone stark raving mad over Gov. George W. Bush's first foray into the competition for the Republican presidential nomination.

What is more interesting is the way the Texas governor, simply by leaving Austin, has caused so much politically bizarre behavior by other Republicans and Democrats. His candidacy has become the political sun around which all the moons seem to be revolving.

Most of the other Republican candidates are carping and whining about all the attention being paid to Mr. Bush. Lamar Alexander says the presidency isn't something you can just inherit. Pat Buchanan is accusing Mr. Bush of being a closet moderate. Gary Bauer and Sen. Bob Smith, a New Hampshire Republican, are berating him for refusing to insist that Supreme Court nominees oppose abortion rights. Steve Forbes is proposing a series of debates.

What all these second- and third-tier players are trying to do, of course, is bask in the glow of the light reflecting from Mr. Bush. And, equally obvious, what they are hoping to do is get themselves identified as his prime opposition. Fat chance.

The two most recent opinion polls of New Hampshire voters, taken before the Bush visit, show him getting 38 and 45 percent of the Republican primary vote, with Elizabeth Dole and John McCain getting 10 to 15 percent and everyone else at 6 percent or less.

The Democrats are also playing the fool because of Mr. Bush. Joe Andrew, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has been trailing around after him dispensing attacks on his record to anyone who would listen. The DNC was even passing out T-shirts with a message comparing the Bush candidacy to the Titanic -- "the iceberg cometh."

The real message, however, was clearly that Mr. Bush is so threatening that the party has to train its guns on him more than seven months before the primaries even begin. And that, in turn, serves to increase Mr. Bush's credibility as a candidate when he is already running far ahead of the DNC's favored candidate, Vice President Al Gore, 54 to 32 percent in New Hampshire.

Just how this phenomenon occurred is far from clear. Some professionals believe Mr. Bush heightened interest simply by staying on the sidelines while his poll numbers mounted and other Republicans rushed to Austin, Texas, to endorse him and give him huge amounts of money. Others think he is benefiting from buyer's remorse among voters who are sorry they turned out his father seven years ago in favor of President Clinton. Others say the Bush craze reflects hostility to Washington and the unseemly business of the past two years.

Whatever the reasons, the news media have gone wildly overboard. Mr. Bush is on the cover of both Time and Newsweek magazines. His visit here attracted 200 or so reporters and television technicians. When he held a press conference at New Castle, there were 29 cameras whirring away, including several from abroad. Stories appeared on the main news programs of all three major networks.

What they got for their effort was a campaign foray that seemed more like a presidential trip in terms of trappings than the first visit of a candidate in the New Hampshire primary. Mr. Bush did the obligatory hand-shaking and shoulder-squeezing with New Hampshire Republicans who still like to maintain the fiction that all of them have to see all the candidates several times.

The important thing for Mr. Bush was that he sailed through this first experience under the closest scrutiny without making anything that could be considered a gaffe. He put himself on record against increases in individual or corporate income tax rates without replicating the "no new taxes" blunder of his father in 1988.

Pressed on his personal life, he simply refused to provide any details of whatever wild oats he sewed 20 or 30 years ago. It is a posture he can probably get away with indefinitely, meaning unless and until someone produces a credible story about some episode that raises serious questions.

For the moment, however, Mr. Bush can enjoy the benefits of a rare event -- a political exercise that exceeds expectations. He has not been crowned as the Republican nominee, let alone as the next president. But right now he is the prime force in the political universe.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

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