Plumbing the depths of W.

If one had to describe George W. Bush's campaign in a phrase, it might be called Nike ad politics. He's got your attention, and the images he creates leave you with that warm, fuzzy feeling - maybe you're even considering buying - but it is not completely clear what he's selling. Competence? Confidence? Boyish charm? Sneakers?

I can't think of one good reason to vote against the Texas governor. The thing is, I can't think of one reason to vote for him, either. And that's something the man from Austin has to start changing beginning with tonight's 90-minute debate in New Hampshire.

For the better part of the last five months, George W. has been trying to convince everyone that (a) his selection as the GOP nominee is an inevitability, and (b) that's just fine, because he loves mothers, apple pie, and all things right and good.

In fact, if George W. has resembled anyone so far, it's Bill Clinton: He has proven that triangulation is not party specific, wedging himself into the middle between the GOP Congress on the right and the president on the left.

And so far it's worked. Republicans and their checkbooks have flocked to W., hoping his middle-ground positioning can win the White House. But the middle is likely to be a crowded place this election - being innocuous won't likely be enough.

Tonight in New Hampshire, George W. has to start giving people a reason they should pick him over the rest of the gang. He has to go beyond the platitudes and begin to get specific.

In the past few weeks he has made the requisite policy speeches to clarify his positions, but even those statements have been carefully calibrated so as never to reveal too much of his hand.

But in W.'s case, what's in that hand is critical because we have little else to go on.

Still a relatively unknown commodity, he hasn't been in the public eye very long and his arrival in it is - let's be honest here - mostly due to the fact that dad is a former president of the United States. If his name were something else, say Thompson or Engler, he certainly wouldn't be on stage tonight as a heavy favorite and he might not even be in the governor's mansion in Austin.

And in truth, W.'s successes down in the cactus patch have been helped by the fact that his five years in office have been marked by exceptionally good economic times. He has captained Texas well, but it has been on calm seas. It's hard to find a state that has foundered in the past five years.

The unemployment rate and test scores in Texas have improved during George W.'s time in office, but other states have seen similar changes - such as Wisconsin and Michigan, which are led by more experienced GOP governors who aren't named Bush.

Of course, none of this means George W. is the wrong man for the job.

What it does mean is that after months of telling us what he isn't - a scary Republican, a free-spending liberal - it's time to start telling us who he is besides a compassionate conservative, whatever that is.

He doesn't have to launch into a long Gore-esque dissertation (please don't), but simply explain on one or two issues why we should pick him out of the line-up.

After all, this is a man who brags that he was not a good student, who likes to tell us he doesn't like reading policy papers. Fine. There's nothing wrong with being an everyday guy. But he needs to give voters a reason, any reason, to pick him. Otherwise I can't see why they would. "Just Do It" isn't enough.

* Dante Chinni writes political commentary from Washington.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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