N.H. race shows Bush strengths and weaknesses

GOP front-runner maintains large lead, but questions arise

Campaign 2000

November 08, 1999|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DIXVILLE NOTCH, N.H. -- As he ambles through a deserted hotel lobby, the man the polls say will be the next president spies a solitary hotel worker.

"Hi. I'm George W.," he says, grabbing the first of many hundreds of hands he will shake by nightfall.

It is very early on Election Day, one year before the nation's first presidential votes -- those cast at this very hotel -- will be announced with great fanfare in one of the enduring publicity stunts of American politics.

Gov. George W. Bush has come to New Hampshire, after ducking two debates, to put on a dazzling display of one-on-one politicking across the northern part of the state. It's his way of demonstrating that he takes nothing for granted, especially here, where the Republican nomination could be all but decided.

Also on display, before the week is out, was one of Bush's greatest potential vulnerabilities: a lack of detailed knowledge of issues, especially foreign policy, which could prompt questions about whether he has the intellectual depth for the job he's seeking.

How well Bush manages to deal with his potential liabilities, and what he does to maintain his lead in the polls, could well determine the outcome of the 2000 race. As his aides like to point out, the front-running Bush is currently the master of his own fate.

Many Republicans already seem to believe that fate has made the former president's son their next nominee, unless, as almost happened last week, he gets hit by a dump truck. But the larger story of the campaign thus far has been the way that conventional wisdom has been turned on its head.

"I think everybody anticipated, including us, a much tighter race on the Republican side," says Mark McKinnon, the Bush campaign's media consultant. "And everybody thought that Vice President Gore would have a much easier time of it on his side."

The prospect of the first wide-open Republican nomination fight in decades lured a dozen candidates into the field. But with New Hampshire's leadoff primary still almost three months away, the race is now effectively a two-way contest between Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Meantime, former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, the only candidate to challenge Gore for the Democratic nomination, has rattled the vice president with his early success, forcing him to shake up his campaign and try to reshape his image.

Last week, Gore's makeover effort became the object of ridicule on late-night television after it was disclosed that he gets advice from controversial feminist Naomi Wolf. She denied reports she coached Gore on to how to become an "alpha male," insisting that she only used that expression once.

At week's end, Bush was faced with a controversy of his own after a Boston TV reporter gave him a surprise foreign policy quiz. Asked to identify the leaders of four global hot spots -- Chechnya, Pakistan, India and Taiwan -- Bush managed to come up with only one.

While some outside his campaign wondered why he hadn't been cramming harder on current events -- he's giving his first major foreign policy address next week -- aides dismissed the questioning as a cheap shot. Even the chairman of the Democratic Party came to his defense.

But the incident, which followed earlier foreign-policy flubs, could feed doubts about Bush's capacity to handle the nation's highest office. With his image still undefined in the public's mind, the risk is that a series of lapses could leave a permanent negative impression, as former Vice President Dan Quayle and others learned.

"The biggest question about Bush is whether he is, not stupid, but sort of intellectually lazy, the guy who gets the `gentleman's C,' who slides by with a wink and a smile and a slap on the back," said a top aide to one of Bush's former Republican rivals, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"His father was a terrible politician, but he was plenty heavy enough. [Governor Bush] is the flip side of that. He is in danger of trying to get away with one-liners, and there's always a danger in that of being perceived as not up to the job."

Bush has never claimed to be an intellectual. He told a group of Baltimore schoolchildren last summer that he had proved that a C student could become governor. A copy of his Yale transcript, in the current issue of the New Yorker magazine, confirms his C average (along with a SAT score of 1206, or 1280 on the readjusted scale now in use).

Experts for details

In his campaign, Bush is addressing this issue indirectly, saying that he would set overall goals for his administration and implying that his experts would handle the details. The Harvard Business School graduate says he would "lead as a chief executive officer. I know how to set agendas."

Aides say privately that if his lack of foreign policy credentials becomes a liability, it can be addressed by putting someone on the ticket with solid experience in that area. A leading candidate is former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, a Bush campaign adviser.

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