AUSTIN, TEXAS — He has told supporters in New Hampshire to "keep your powder dry." He has met with wealthy potential donors to lay out his vision for America.
He has even hired a private investigator to snoop around his past to anticipate what reporters or opponents might find out. In short, George W. Bush has done everything that a prospective presidential candidate might do - except announce his intention to run.
Small wonder, then, that at noon today, when Governor Bush gives his inaugural speech for a second term in office, reporters will be scrambling all around the pink-granite Texas Capitol, scribbling every word, analyzing every nuance. Bush remains the top Republican candidate for the White House in 2000, and his brand of "compassionate conservatism" is being touted by some as the future of the GOP.
The affable Texan isn't the first Republican to promote the idea that his party can tailor its conservative message to a broader audience. But his position as governor of the nation's second-biggest state and as a presidential front-runner has made him the leading figure in a movement to cast the GOP in kinder hues - a stance that does carry risks.
"George W. Bush really does believe there is a role for government, and poverty is a big concern for government," says Myron Magnet, editor of City Journal, the magazine of the conservative Manhattan Institute in New York. "Until now, conservatives have fastidiously turned up their noses at the poor, and that's why conservatives have not been interested in urban problems. But what Bush is saying is that these people are the appropriate object of conservative concern, and we have some solutions to their problems."
Bush says he won't announce his presidential aspirations in the spring, but many supporters say he has already picked up the mantle of the leading conservative with a heart. And his landslide victory last fall is evidence that voters - including women and minorities - like what they hear.
Needless to say, the conservative approach to societal ills - from poverty to joblessness to teen pregnancy - is a far cry from the Great Society approach touted by Democrats over the past 35 years. Instead of simply cutting welfare mothers a monthly check, Bush talks of putting them into group homes and encouraging them to seek work. Instead of pumping more money into failing schools, Bush calls for testing students to be sure they meet the requirements for passing on to the next grade. He even supports a pilot voucher program to allow low-income families to use public money to pay for private-school tuition.
In essence, Mr. Magnet says, Bush believes government is not evil, and it should not be neutral either. It should encourage good behavior and responsibility, and it should welcome the participation of nonprofits and churches in helping the disadvantaged.
"What people who are failing in life often need is values, and care for the poor and particularly care for children is something that ought not to be value neutral," says Magnet. (Bush says Magnet's book on liberal social policy, "The Dream and the Nightmare," has had a great influence on him.)
In the past two elections, this approach has gained broad support, especially from voting groups that Republicans have long had difficulty reaching, such as women, blacks, and Hispanics. Bush has even coaxed some "yellow-dog" Democrats in high office to drop their partisan stance and "make nice."
Take former Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, a powerful Democratic officeholder who retired this year after three decades in state government. Last fall, he shocked fellow Democrats by endorsing Bush for reelection, against his own protg, Garry Mauro. And when Mr. Bullock convened the 76th state legislature last week, he introduced Bush as "the future president of the United States."
"I have very little tolerance for the far left, and likewise for the far right - they're both professional complainers," says Bullock. "It's the folks in between that make this country run.... And in George Bush, they like what they see."
Other top-ranking Democrats say they appreciate Bush's preference for solutions over stalemate.
"He's a very compassionate individual; he doesn't have to put another title on it," says state House Speaker Pete Laney (D), who has breakfast with Bush and the lieutenant governor every Wednesday morning.
Just hollow words?
Of course, to some critics, "compassionate conservatism" is just another way of saying "indecisiveness." Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg, writing in the National Review last year, complained that Bush calls himself a compassionate conservative "every time you pull the string in his back." Lamar Alexander, who is exploring a presidential bid, describes Bush's trademark phrase as "weasel words," designed to mean nothing.
To Bush's supporters, the merit of the words is the results. After Bush took office, the Texas legislature passed major reforms of the welfare, education, juvenile-justice, and civil-court systems. The most far-reaching reform may be in limiting tort cases against insurance companies and businesses. His biggest defeat may have been his failed attempt to cut property taxes.
For some members of the Republican Party, Bush's appeal is his ability to see the forest and not just focus on the trees.
"President Bush's problem was that he was more interested in trees, especially foreign trees," says Linda Chavez, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, and a former Reagan administration appointee. "George W. Bush, on the other hand, seems very focused on practical issues, and he can describe a broader framework for his ideas, In that way, he is more like Reagan, who was also a governor.... They make the best presidents."
Governor Bush's outreach to Hispanic voters this past fall was also Reagan-like, says Mrs. Chavez, noting that President Reagan gained almost 40 percent of the Latino vote in the 1984 election by appealing to their patriotism and improving the economy. "Clearly, for the governor, outreach is very important."
If Bush holds any hopes of moving into the White House, the next few months in the state legislature will be crucial. Falling oil prices have forced tax collectors to scale back their projections of a budget surplus. That means less money to fulfill all those campaign promises.
But even with such difficulties ahead, supporters say Bush is unlikely to be easily daunted.
"He comes from a highly competitive family," Magnet says. "There was a big emphasis on winning, and you had to compete to prove you've got the right stuff. I think he'll go the distance."