`Retooled' Bush hits trail as high-stakes primary looms

Candidate sees S.C. race as comeback battle he can win

February 13, 2000|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Hungrier, scrappier and a bit more humble, the "new" George W. Bush is hitting the presidential trail with fresh urgency and a recycled strategy.

Bush says he has "retooled" after his 19-point loss to John McCain in New Hampshire. He's opening up more to voters and striking harder at his rival.

His turnaround effort made a bit of progress last week, after a victory in the Delaware primary. Meantime, McCain got tripped up over negative campaign tactics in the increasingly down-and-dirty GOP contest.

Still, there's no clear favorite heading into this week's South Carolina primary, a high-stakes test that will likely set the course of the nomination race.

"I'm in a fight down here," the Texas governor told an audience in Columbia. "It's important for me to show you that I can take a punch and come back and win."

Bush's supporters and financial backers around the country may be deeply concerned over his recent plunge in the polls. After all, he became their favorite at least in part because he seemed to be the most electable candidate.

But inside the tight-knit Bush operation,there are few visible signs of panic. Offstage, the candidate remains outwardly confident and easygoing.

In front of audiences, however, he comes across at times as strident, shouting his words and sounding almost desperate. His body language can make aides cringe, especially when he hunches over behind a microphone stand, arms tensed.

As McCain has done all along, Bush is taking more time now for questions from voters and the media. And he's trying to swipe the label of reformer away from the senator, whom he's taken to calling "Chairman McCain," as a way of reminding voters of his seniority in Washington.

In contrast to his seemingly unflappable rival, Bush can react with asperity to tough questions, as he did last week when a student at Newberry College asked about his switch of slogans after New Hampshire.

"Before, you were a `compassionate conservative.' Now, you're a `reformer with results,' " said the young man.

He went on to question Bush's commitment to campaign reform, noting that "you're taking five times as much special interest money as McCain."

"OK. Sit down," Bush interjected, signaling his displeasure.

Bush enjoys the backing of Sen. Strom Thurmond and a host of other established South Carolina politicians, while McCain is supported by two of the party's bright new stars, Reps. Lindsey Graham and Mark Sanford. The result has been to put Bush on the side of the Old Guard against the Young Turks, undermining his claim that he is challenging the status quo.

Intent on showing that he can win the race on his own, Bush has pushed into the background the big-name Republican politicians who used to crowd the stage at his campaign events. They're still in his corner, but increasingly nervous about his prospects.

Also missing from the South Carolina action is Bush's father, whose embrace of his "boy" in the closing days of the New Hampshire campaign may have made it look as though the 53-year-old candidate wasn't ready to be president.

But the governor's mother, Barbara, and other family members, including his brother, Jeb, the governor of Florida, have campaigned here recently. Bush doesn't hesitate to bring up his family connections.

Asked at a question-and-answer session in Gaffney how he would stay in touch with ordinary people if he became president, Bush paused for a moment.

"The answer is, I guess: Take my mother's phone calls," he said with a short laugh.

Bush's comeback chances may depend less on his new campaign style than on the success of his two-part strategy, the same one he has had all along and a proven winner in presidential primaries here going back to 1980: First, rally Republican conservatives, and especially Christian conservatives, to your side; second, keep the heat on the other guy.

Bush and his advisers worry openly, however, that McCain's surging campaign could be rewriting the playbook. The Arizona senator's populist appeal is attracting independents and even liberal Democrats, who have no primary of their own and are free to vote in the GOP election Saturday.

In New Hampshire, a similar coalition of Republicans and independents gave McCain a runaway victory. And though this state's electorate is more conservative, and thus presumably more favorable to Bush, the avalanche of publicity set off by McCain's remarkable rise has led a growing number of Democrats to openly declare their support for the senator.

"This is a totally different thing to have a crossover vote in the primary," said former Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr., a leading Bush backer. "We're in a whole new ballgame with all this stuff."

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