BENTON HARBOR, MICH. — George W. Bush bursts out of the arts center at Lake Michigan Community College, pumped up from a rousing speech to an overflow throng of Republican faithful, and lifts his arms in triumph.
The crowd roars. Mr. Bush beams. He's clearly enjoying himself. After a quick photo op with kids perched on a firetruck, a swarm of Secret Service agents whisks him into his campaign bus.
With just a week to go before America elects its next president, no one would guess that Bush ever had reservations about running for president or that, even a few weeks ago, he couldn't easily explain why someone should vote for him.
But the man who at times during the race seemed reluctant and diffident, who seldom changed a word in his standard stump speech, seems suddenly to have mastered the fine art of presidential campaigning.
In recent stops, Bush almost looks like a different person than the one who started somewhat tentatively on the trail 1-1/2 years ago. He has settled at last on a core message that resonates with a populist theme ("I trust the people, and Al Gore trusts Washington), found a deft way to raise the "integrity" issue, and seems far more comfortable in front of a crowd now that he's foregoing questions from the audience and focusing on rousing the Republican base.
"OK, I'll keep going then!" he recently told a crowd near Tampa, Fla., after at first suggesting he wind up his speech. "I'm just hittin' my stride!"
Mark McKinnon, Bush's media adviser, calls the Texan's emergence an "evolution of confidence."
"Something is happening," says Mr. McKinnon. "He loves the fourth quarter of the game. He likes to have the ball. He's incredibly competitive."
Still, more is at play than just a growth of confidence that comes with doing the same thing over and over again, or the natural tendency toward the end of any hard-fought match to rise to the occasion. Bush and the wordsmiths behind him are also showing an awareness of the need to soft-pedal certain conservative themes - for fear of alienating moderate, swing voters - while nevertheless revving up the party's conservative core.
At a campaign rally at a Christian high school in Kalamazoo, Mich., Bush didn't directly use the "A" word (abortion) or the "V" word (school vouchers), but he referred to those issues, speaking to the crowd in code language they understood.
When he spoke of the "armies of compassion" his presidency would rally, one of his standard lines, he included in them "crisis pregnancy centers" - places that steer pregnant women away from abortion. He also praised the Boy Scouts, without mentioning the recent controversy over their ban on homosexual troop leaders.
And though he supports private-school vouchers as a way for families to escape failing public schools, he has steered clear of taking a position on Michigan's pro-voucher ballot initiative. "Govenor Bush believes it's up to Michigan to decide," says campaign spokesman Scott McLellan. Furthermore, Michigan Gov. John Engler (R) - one of Bush's earliest patrons - opposes the initiative.
Instead, Bush told the Kalamazoo crowd: "When we find failure, we can challenge failure by giving parents more choice and more options and better opportunities for every child."
Religious conservatives aren't as potent a political force as they were during the 1990s, but they remain among the Republicans' most enthusiastic foot soldiers. After eight years of Democratic control of the White House, the Christian right is especially eager for change - and is willing to take its signals from the candidate in indirect language.
Many say they're confident Bush would appoint justices who oppose abortion to the US Supreme Court, even though he has avoided saying he would impose a litmus test on that issue.
In the waning days of the 2000 campaign, Bush's rhetoric is also noteworthy for his ability to go negative against Gore - mocking, for example, the targeted tax cuts for items such as rooftop photovoltaic systems - while maintaining his image of affability.
And in the most striking example of attempted political pick-pocketing, he is arguing that the last eight years of prosperity - normally a highly compelling argument for voters to stick with the party already controlling the White House - have nothing to do with the Clinton-Gore administration.
"Our economy is strong today not because of Al Gore," he says. "Our economy is strong today because we're a land of dreamers and doers."
Bush is, in effect, taking President Reagan's classic reelection argument, "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" and standing it on its side. He is acknowledging that the average American is better off today than four or eight years ago, and offering in its place his populist-tinged theme of trust. The polls show the public doesn't want a tax cut, he says, but he believes it's the right thing to do - that the surplus is the people's money, and he's going to give some of it back to the people.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society