AGAINST a backdrop of tasseled draperies and scalloped columns, Texas Gov. George W. Bush pretends to sign the pet bill of a state legislator, who beams over his shoulder. In reality, the governor inked his approval of this and many other bills shortly after the biennial session of the Legislature concluded in May.
But there was no time then to snap pictures for lawmakers' walls and hometown newspapers. So here, a month later, the GOP governor was going through the motions again for lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats.
While such pantomimes are a staple of American politics, the number of lawmakers lining up for a photo op with the governor this year has been particularly large.
That's because, six months into his term, Mr. Bush has already maneuvered his entire campaign platform through the Democratic-controlled Texas House and Senate.
Though critics argue that much of the legislation would have passed no matter who was in the governor's mansion, even some Democrats concede that Bush is off to an impressive start as the chief executive of the nation's second-largest state.
He will, to be sure, face contentious issues next year that will test his leadership and consensus-building skills. But for now he has left the bootprint of a pragmatist rather than an ideologue in a state whose politics are often identified with sharp toes and bruised shins.
"He came into the process knowing less about it than any governor since [Bill] Clements. He learned real fast," says Texas House Speaker Pete Laney, a Democrat who has worked with six governors during his 23 years in office.
The initiatives Bush helped push through the legislature carry a predictably conservative stamp - reform of welfare, juvenile justice, education, and the legal system. Yet he didn't get everything he wanted. Lawmakers rejected his demand that welfare mothers who have more babies get no increase in benefits.
"We kind of got snuck up on on that," Bush says while toying with a stout walking stick in his wood-paneled capitol office.
As a member of the minority party holding an office with limited powers, Bush had to build coalitions to reach his goals. He kept his door open to liberals while stifling the more partisan in his own party. He attempted to cultivate rather than castigate Democratic Party members.
Bush also developed "an almost father-son relationship" with irascible Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, marvels Texas political analyst Harvey Kronberg. With his life-and-death power over Senate legislation - it's Bullock's job to shepherd or kill Senate bills - Democrat Bullock holds the most powerful post in Texas government.
Bush says he learned how to build a coalition by watching his father - "a master of personal diplomacy" - marshal diverse nations against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Although they may have that skill in common, nothing of the former president's Ivy League primness surrounds his son. George W. Bush is a regular guy. Autographed baseballs enshrined in glass cases, souvenirs of his part-ownership of the Texas Rangers, occupy an entire wall of his capitol office. On his desk, next to his feet, a gizmo shrieks with laughter at the push of a button.
"You notice I didn't push it when you quoted Ed Martin," Bush jokes.
One of the few people blowing raspberries at Bush is Mr. Martin. As executive director of the Democratic Party of Texas, he naturally complains about press depictions of Bush striding out of the legislative woods with credit for every tree that fell. In Martin's view, Bush merely caught a moving train. All his campaign issues would have been passed in this legislature anyway, he says.
Bush calls that perception "shallow," which is about as harsh a criticism as he utters publicly. He cites "clear differences" between his platform and that of defeated Gov. Ann Richards. On welfare, she pounded him for wanting to "penalize the poor." On juvenile justice, she ridiculed his call to lower to 14 the age for trying someone as an adult.
A team effort with key legislators produced the new reforms, the governor says. House Speaker Laney agrees that Bush was "a positive influence," someone who was "very active and instrumental" on tort reform. He praises the governor for wanting to "do what's right for Texas" rather than ram through the GOP's national platform.
Analysts say Bush's approach is playing well with voters here, who detest the partisan bickering in Washington. "People don't want to see that. They want to see their kids educated and the roads paved," Mr. Kronberg says.
Next on the agenda
Bush has named property taxes his next big issue. Texas is one of six states with no income tax. Thus property taxes amount to 48 percent of the state and local tab in Texas, compared with 32 percent nationally.
What's more, in 1975 the service sector accounted for 20 percent of the Texas economy. Manufacturing, which requires lots of high-tax property, was 80 percent. Today those positions are reversed. Thus business's share of property taxes has shrunk, leaving more of the load for residences. Retirees are finding that the property taxes on their paid-for homes are higher than their mortgage payments were.
"People are now getting ready, in my opinion, to revolt on property taxes," Bush says. He senses a public anxiety higher than any time in the past two decades.
Meanwhile, political primaries are less than a year away. Bush will not campaign against any incumbent Democrats except President Clinton. Instead he will help reelect Republicans and promote presidential aspirant Sen. Phil Gramm, whose Texas campaign he leads.
"That pretty well fills my dance card," Bush says.
As for Bush's own political future, "he's a blank check," says Robert Stein, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston. "Ambition for him is now being defined."
Bush, who readily swaps personal information about family, turns cagey when political what-ifs are broached. He has said he's undecided about running again. Professor Stein thinks that the governor, an advocate of term limits, might well step aside so he won't block other aspirants. "After four years he may find, 'I don't need this. I can walk away,' " Stein says.
For the moment, Bush savors his favorite moments in office - his inauguration ceremony, this week's announcement that a Texas congressman switched to the GOP.
And another "neat occasion" - he uses phrases like that - was lunch at the governor's mansion with his dad. "He invited himself," Bush says. "Of course, I was glad to fix a meal for him."