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Bush allure: an earnest, regular guy

• GOP election gains reveal depth of the president's post-9/11 support.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 13, 2002


In the week since Election Day, President Bush has played down his role in the GOP's takeover of Congress. He credits the candidates for their hard work. He shuns talk of a personal mandate, insisting the voters' message is directed at both Republicans and Democrats to "get things done."

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In part, Bush is appearing the gracious winner. He is also tamping down expectations, a signature element of his leadership style. There is no doubt, say longtime observers, that his charisma was a central element in the 2002 election, especially in those final days when he touched down in city after city, exhorting people to vote and hitching local candidates to his star.

Such is his personal appeal that, during the campaign, some Republican candidates drove hours just so they could get a short ride in Air Force One with Bush, and be photographed waving with him from the top step.

Toward the end of the campaign, the Gallup Poll stressed that Republicans were more motivated to vote than Demo- crats. A CBS/New York Times poll found 31 percent of voters were casting votes as a show of support for Bush, even though his name wasn't on the ballot. "People just like him as a person," says Karlyn Bowman, a polling expert at the American Enterprise Institute.

But merely being the kind of guy you'd want to invite to your neighborhood barbecue doesn't fully capture the essence and evolution of George W. Bush. If he began his presidency with a jokey, irreverent style, he also established a personal character that included loyalty to his wife and a clean lifestyle - and provided a marked contrast to former President Clinton. Eight months into Bush's presidency, Sept. 11 presented him with the opportunity to become a stirring leader, and he rose to the occasion.

"It touched in him something that was deep and personal," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. "He's someone who's very protective of those for whom he feels responsible and feels affectionate." Bush's informal role in his father's administration was to protect the president by looking out for signs of disloyalty among staff. Now Bush is responsible for protecting the United States, Mr. Buchanan says, "and that's activating a part of him that hadn't been there in his presidential role, at least."

As with Clinton, whose first big presidential moment came with the Oklahoma City bombing, Bush projected sincerity and caring as he spoke about the terrorist attacks and what needed to be done. But Clinton's ability to "feel our pain" eventually became fodder for parody. For Bush, Sept. 11 has had staying power that Oklahoma City didn't, and the president has engaged himself in the issues that have sprung from the attacks.

The clear analogy in style is to former President Reagan. Like Bush - and unlike Clinton and Al Gore - Reagan wasn't a natural student of policy. But when challenged, he appeared to operate instinctively and could be a persuasive salesman to the public. Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster in Atlanta, compares Reagan's handling of the air traffic controllers' strike at the beginning of his term to Bush's marshaling of public opinion on Iraq. Initially, the public opposed firing air traffic controllers, but Reagan swung opinion to his side by 2 to 1. On the question of whether to go to war, Bush is operating the same way, says Ayres. "He evaluates the threat and decides what is needed to meet it," he says. "Then he convinces the public to follow him."