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

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."

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.

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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."

On domestic policy, Bush probably faces a tougher audience than the American public in carrying out his agenda: Senate Democrats. Though they have lost their majority, they can still give him fits by blocking legislation. Bush also may face challenges from within the Republican caucus, which doesn't necessarily move in lockstep. Reportedly, Senate Republicans have already been warned that they "owe" the president for their election-day takeover.

BUT if Bush's eight years of executive power - including six as Texas governor - are a guide, Congress will likely see the full force of his skill in working issues as he seeks to build up a record for his reelection campaign.

As governor, Bush had a habit of walking into state legislators' offices just to chew the fat. When he walked into the state House of Representatives, he would greet everyone, freely dispensing hugs, no matter the politicians' affiliations. Of course, Washington isn't Austin, Texas; the goal posts are much farther apart here, the range of ideologies wider. But Bush's combination of easygoing style and solid determination have already served him well in Washington.

"People just like him, and he's an easy guy to help," says George Christian, a political affairs specialist and former press secretary to President Johnson. "It's easier to say yes to somebody you like than [to] some snarling dog. I've known him for a long time and he is straightforward. He's funny. He ... knows how to lighten things up." But Bush is also focused, says Mr. Christian, and can pick out a few agenda items to hammer away at - and then, when he's gotten what he wants, go on to three or four more.

"He's a Bubba ... who doesn't act like he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth," says Claudia Stravato, head of Planned Parenthood in Amarillo and former chief of staff to the late Bob Bullock, Texas's legendary Democratic lieutenant governor. "He doesn't have that Eastern patina, and he doesn't make people feel dumb. They don't really know his background ..., so they think they can identify with him. He runs, he shoots, he likes sports. He's the quintessential Texan."

Of course, Bush doesn't come from nowhere; he is the scion of a big political family, and he has his father's experience behind him. None of which is to suggest that Bush has an easy road ahead. He has pushed through policies that may not ultimately benefit lower-income supporters. "The mass public is not terribly well-informed; politics can be deliberately misleading," says Bruce Buchanan, the University of Texas professor. "The tax cut was portrayed as a middle-class program, but it is far from that."

So far, though, says Buchanan, Republican policies have not directly touched American lives - by, for instance, sending young people to war against Iraq. "He sent them a [tax rebate] check, and talked about education and about moving the agenda forward and ending gridlock," he says. The questions are what challenges lie ahead - both domestically and abroad - and whether Bush can keep the public with him.

Staff writer Kris Axtman in Houston contributed to this report.

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