Is there a new George Bush? Who is this tough-talking fellow who hammers at Michael Dukakis every day, but who also seems to have his own, unexpectedly progressive agenda for America? In the past few days, we've seen a feisty Mr. Bush roll up his shirt sleeves and shout back at a jeering crowd of union shipyard workers in Oregon. We've also seen the vice-president surprise Democrats with a strong, Teddy Roosevelt-style stand for conservation.
Ever since the Republican convention last month, Americans have seen a different Vice-President Bush, though the new persona really began to emerge weeks earlier.
Bush's team of speech writers now works around the clock to put the ``new'' Bush into words - on the environment, day care, education, and civil rights.
A Bush aide who travels frequently with the vice-president says that on defense, foreign policy, jobs, and economic strategy, Bush hews closely to the Reagan record. Those are the major peace and prosperity issues that will drive the election.
But the staff member says that on other issues, such as civil rights and the environment, ``the vice-president would do more than Ronald Reagan and be very progressive.''
The new Bush, who floated around Boston Harbor last week deriding Governor Dukakis's record on water pollution, brings hoots of derision from many Democrats. Former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt growls that Bush would ``rape the land for corporate profit.''
Dukakis complains that Bush has undergone an election-year conversion on these issues.
Other Democrats, led by Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, ask ``Where was George?'' when President Reagan was favoring many policies that were quite different.
But a campaign adviser notes that as a congressman, Bush was ``very pro-environment.'' And Bush's stand for civil rights when he was in the House of Representatives is a matter of record.
Bush aides claim that the public is now seeing the real Bush, emerging from the long, long Reagan shadow. Nowhere is that emergence clearer than on environmental issues. During the past week, Bush pledged that he favors policies to:
Ban ocean dumping of sewage sludge after 1991.
Track disposal of medical waste.
Beef up the Coast Guard's ability to stop illegal dumping at sea.
Use the Federal Bureau of Investigation to track down illegal dumpers.
Curb the damage done by acid rain, on a specific timetable.
Convene a world conference on the environment to tackle such problems as deforestation, global warming, acid rain, and ocean pollution.
Clean up toxic waste dumps, and streamline the bureaucracy in charge of the program to get faster action.
Encourage efforts to preserve wetlands.
Clearly, this isn't Ronald Reagan talking. Indeed, the new Bush appears to have caught Governor Dukakis by surprise and thrown him on the defensive. Issues like the environment, child care, and education are supposed to be Democratic issues.
Politically, Bush's strategy seems clear. It mirrors the one he used in the primaries to defeat Robert Dole and the other Republican challengers.
At one level, Bush runs on the Reagan record, especially where that is popular, on such issues as the economy and defense.
But at another level, Bush has moved quickly to preempt any issue where he might be vulnerable. By moving swiftly to realign himself on issues like the environment, education, and child care, he takes arrows out of his opponents' quivers.
Instead of talking about his own environmental program, Dukakis finds himself responding to Bush's plans. Instead of headlines about Dukakis's child-care plan, for instance, it is Bush's ideas that make the news.
Dukakis grumbles that Bush's proposals, as in education, are inadequate, but that leaves him playing the role of naysayer - exactly what Bush wants. The strategy, says one Bush aide, is to ``Mondalize'' Dukakis, making the Democrat the candidate of ``gloom and doom.''
Bush's commitment to some of these issues is being challenged by the Democrats. The vice-president vows, however, to become directly involved in some areas that are seldom associated with the Reagan White House.
For example, he told the national convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in July that he would ``be personally involved in protecting the civil rights of all Americans. This effort will be at the top of the agenda of my attorney general, and he or she will be directly accountable to me for results.''
He tells crowd after crowd that he wants to be known as ``the education president,'' vowing in un-Reagan-like words: ``We need to spend more on education.''
He told an audience in Michigan last week: ``I am an environmentalist. Always have been, from my earliest days as a congressman, when I first chaired a House task force on earth resources and population. And I always will be to my last days as president of this great and beautiful country.''
He told a convention in New Mexico: ``Today, child care is nothing short of a family necessity. ... Most women work due to economic necessity. Sixty percent of women in the civilian work force are providing the sole or critical support for their families.''
Yet Bush doesn't go so far that he breaks with his most conservative supporters. He didn't come out for the Equal Rights Amendment, for example.
But Bush is putting heat on Dukakis with these proposals, and turning the campaign into a battleground for middle-of-the-road, independent voters who may decide this election.
Says a member of Bush's staff: ``I think it's working. Dukakis seems a little grouchy lately.''