In theory, the small crowd gathering in the Longhorn Museum of Pleasanton, Texas, has come to hear Gov. George W. Bush talk about his plans for the next four years as governor. But just about everyone here knows that if he is reelected, his term might not last that long.
"I don't think it's too early to be talking about a Bush presidential run in 2000," says county judge Deborah Herber, before introducing Governor Bush to the waiting throngs. "He has the trust of people, because of his moral and ethical standards. Especially with what's going on in the White House now, he's a fine example of what a statesman ought to be like."
Wherever Bush campaigns, two rumors generally follow. One is that he is really running for president in 2000 (for the record, he hasn't decided, although straw polls put him at the front of the GOP pack). The other is that he's not a great campaigner. With current polls showing Bush holding onto a strong lead over his Democratic opponent, Garry Mauro, his gubernatorial campaign gives the silver-haired son of a president an opportunity to sharpen his skills on the hustings and offers a window on whether he has the get-up-and-go for a presidential run.
"He's pretty unproven; he's only run two campaigns in his life," says Jennifer Duffy, a political analyst with the Cook Political Report in Washington. "But then, the first part of the job, getting the Republican nomination, is not about whipping up crowds. Those people want to hear the message, so it's a lot more about substance than style for that group."
Party stalwarts say Bush's reputation for lackluster speeches is unearned. "I'm sure he has his off days," says David Weeks, a Republican campaign consultant, "but I've never seen him not whip up a crowd. He has this tremendous warmth that people respond to."
For his part, Bush tells reporters his current goal is to be "the first Texan to be reelected to back-to-back terms as governor." And here in a hall full of mementos that defend Pleasanton's claim to be the "birthplace of the cowboy," Bush delivers his speech like a practiced pro.
First come the jokes. Of his 16-year-old daughters, he quips, "There aren't enough DPS agents in the state of Texas to protect Texans from those two new drivers." He even teases the townsfolk he is trying to woo. Admiring a museum wall of stuffed Indian gazelles and African kudus, he jokes, "I didn't realize there were so many exotic animals in the state of Texas."
Then come the pledges. On education, he calls for local control of public schools and less interference from Austin and Washington. On crime, he promises to keep inmates in prison for the full length of their sentences. On welfare, he demands that every able-bodied Texan get a job. "With the way this state's economy is going," he says, "there's simply no excuse for not finding work."
While each of these themes is the stock in trade of any governor, they also bear an uncanny resemblance to the broad social themes of another onetime governor who sought national office: Bill Clinton. "From a speaking standpoint, they're a lot alike," says Mr. Weeks. "They both have a warmth and an instant connection with people." The difference with Bush, he adds quickly, is that "people believe him."
In Pleasanton, one of the most enthusiastic clappers in the crowd is rancher Jim Vynalek, who says Bush is "reinstating my faith in politicians. I hope some of him rubs off on some of the other governors and some of those folks in Congress."
Jim's wife, Earline, says that Bush would make a great president, but adds, "I was really hoping he'd stick around for the next four years. We sure would hate to lose him."
For lifelong Democrat Bertha West, Bush's message plays well, even in this Democratic town. "I agreed with everything he said," Mrs. West says. "I vote in the Democratic primaries, but I vote for the man" in general elections.
Somehow, Bush even manages to get through to the two dozen high-school students who have taken a field trip to hear the governor speak.
"He's a real nice guy, and I think he'll be president some day," says Bryan David, who posed for a group photo with Bush after the speech. "I like his views that more people need to get an education.... If you don't have an education, then you tend to get into more trouble."
His friend Richard Maddox agrees. "I'm not into politics all that much, but he should be president. He really connects with young people, and that's hard to find."
Once the Bush campaign team heads for its next destination into the 102-degree heat outside, and as the crowds subside, some supporters take a firm look at the possibility that their governor may indeed begin campaigning for the presidency. After all, his campaign team has already purchased the rights to a Web site: Bush2000.com
"I really don't think he'll run, not if he's made a commitment to serve the people of Texas," says Betty Lancaster, a retiree who switched to the Republican Party back in 1976.
Her friend Texas Moore agrees: "He's too dyed-in-the-wool Texan not to finish his term."