Bush's Blastoff

After months of hype on a par with that of the latest "Star Wars" movie, Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush has hit the hustings.

The Texas governor, son of a past president, left the Lone Star State for swings through Iowa and New Hampshire with a pick-up bed full of political advantages. He's far and away the GOP front-runner. He has a healthy lead over the probable Democratic nominee, Vice President Al Gore, in the polls (which, we hasten to point out, are largely meaningless this early in the game). He enjoys the endorsement of a passel of GOP governors and thousands of legislators, from Congress to statehouses to county commissions.

But the hype can be a disadvantage, too. Expectations for Governor Bush run so high that any stumble will attract immediate, blanket coverage. (Remember Michigan Gov. George Romney, a Republican, in 1968 and Democratic Sen. Edmund Muskie in 1972.) Bush's public-opinion advantages over other GOP candidates are less in Iowa and New Hampshire than elsewhere. Voters in both states have independent streaks that have derailed front-runners in the past.

It's also probable that as more people get to know the governor and his stands on the issues, his sky-high popularity ratings will come down. That's more normal than not, but it could provide fodder for his foes.

Bush has tried to lasso the problem by staying in Texas until the legislative session was over and by making vague issue statements. But as he starts campaigning in earnest, those positions will have to harden as he fights off the attacks of his GOP rivals, not to mention sniping from the Democratic National Committee.

Some evidence of clearer stands came when Bush wrote to a tax-watchdog group that he would fight any hike in federal income taxes. It wasn't quite his father's "Read My Lips: No New Taxes" promise (later broken), but it raised a few eyebrows among observers. Still, the statement will probably help the Texan in New Hampshire, where "taking the pledge" against tax increases has become a rite of passage in the GOP primary.

Bush will have to earn the nomination if he is to overcome charges by GOP hopefuls Lamar Alexander, the former Tennessee governor, and ex-Vice President Dan Quayle that he's the front-runner only because of his family name. Magazine publisher Steve Forbes is lurking in the hills, ready to launch a barrage of self-funded media ads. And who knows what populist firebrand Pat Buchanan will cook up this time?

Welcome to the race, governor.

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