For Bush, timing is everything

Texas governor runs risks in pursuing cloistered 'yellow rose garden'

In the political world, no one seriously doubts that Texas' Republican governor, George W. Bush, is running for president.

Without leaving Texas, he's raking in the campaign cash, piling on endorsements from key Republicans around the country, and perched comfortably atop opinion polls for the Republican nomination. In Washington, top GOP legislators have met with Governor Bush's people to craft a common agenda.

Yet he hasn't formally declared his candidacy. The spokeswoman for his presidential "exploratory" committee says he won't make a final decision until after summer. After the Texas legislative session ends May 31, Bush plans to travel the country, give speeches, and raise money, for himself and other Republicans.

"He's said he'd have to get out there and find out if there's really any support behind all this talk," says the spokeswoman, Mindy Tucker. "But at this point, things are going very well."

Still, a crucial question lurks in analysts' minds: How long can this "yellow-rose-garden" strategy work? Bush's coy approach is a Texas version of the so-called Rose Garden strategy, in which a president seeks reelection merely by being president - and sticking close to the executive mansion.

But by avoiding the campaign trail thus far, Bush has made some trade-offs. He has missed the earliest stage of the campaign, when candidates test out themes and gauge grass-roots sentiment without excessive media glare. Most voters haven't tuned into the campaign yet, and so mistakes aren't necessarily fatal.

Bush has never campaigned for office outside of Texas, and so "by not taking part in the preliminary sparring, he's not going to have much of a feel for this," says Bruce Buchanan, a presidential scholar at the University of Texas at Austin.

"There's personal chemistry between the candidates who are out together," Professor Buchanan adds. "Then the first time they all get together, [Bush] will be something of a marked person. They'll tag team him a bit."

Get thee to an Iowa farmhouse

Analysts also note that it's important for Bush to start stumping in Iowa and New Hampshire soon, and indeed, he plans to do so in June. Those states are very different from Texas, and their voters, as hosts of the first caucus (Iowa) and primary (New Hampshire), expect a fair amount of personal attention from the candidates.

Poor showings in those early states could prove devastating for Bush. Expectations for him are so high that even if he wins, but someone else nearly beats him, his campaign would be shaken.

A separate question arises over whether Bush should take part in a nonbinding Republican straw poll in Ames, Iowa, this August. If he doesn't participate, and therefore shows poorly, it's open to debate how Iowa voters will view him. Worse, if he does take part and still shows poorly, it would be a major blow to his candidacy.

Ultimately, some analysts say it doesn't really matter when Bush announces his candidacy; for all intents and purposes, he is running, they say, and isn't being treated any differently by the media just because he hasn't made a formal announcement.

Bush supporters argue that there's a difference between being a declared candidate and being just an "exploratory" one. By waiting, says informal Bush adviser Charles Black, Bush is buying more time to formulate his positions.

"The day you become an announced candidate, that's the time you're expected to put forth policy ideas and proposals and tell people where you want to take the country," says Mr. Black, a veteran of the Reagan campaigns as well as that of Bush's father, former President Bush. "That's when you're obligated to answer any question on any issue."

Black also notes that when Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980, he waited until November 1979 to declare his candidacy. But well before Mr. Reagan's declaration, other observers point out, he was crisscrossing the country, making speeches, and articulating his positions.

What's the message?

The biggest question surrounding Bush, really, is not whether he'll run for president, but what his themes and messages will be. Within Texas, the two-term governor is popular, but polls show it's mainly because of his likable personality, and not because of his policies.

The vagueness of Bush's views - which so far have been summed up by his phrase "compassionate conservatism" - has contributed to some Republican activists' concern over reports that key Bush advisers have been meeting with congressional Republican leaders to craft a common agenda.

If Bush already had a well-known agenda, then it may appear just to be prudent advance planning for a party that has hurt its electoral chances in recent years by intramural divisions. But for Bush, by working closely with inside-the-Beltway party leaders - the least popular segment of the GOP - he may be ceding some of his natural advantage as an outsider, says Steve Merksamer, a Republican activist based in Sacramento, Calif.

"It's a huge mistake," says Mr. Merksamer. "The Republican Party is looking for someone frankly to challenge the Republican leadership in Congress."

Bush advisers defend the consultations as a routine approach taken by a front-runner intent on unifying the party.

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