Bush debuts amid soaring expectations

On first campaign trip, Texas governor carves identity as a

"Hey, what's the headline so far?" one reporter shouted to another in the press room at the Iowa State Fair Grounds here.

"Um...," the second reporter thought for a moment. "Bush doesn't mess up."

In the history of presidential campaign politics, there may be no candidate who has faced higher expectations than Texas's Republican governor, George W. Bush. Without campaigning, Mr. Bush has garnered sky-high poll ratings nationwide, raised millions of dollars more than any other Republican candidate, and secured the solid endorsement of most of the GOP establishment.

But lingering in the minds of the party faithful there lurked a critical question: Could he pull it off? Could he take the winning style that had gotten him two successful campaigns for Texas governor and transform it into a national crusade with the potential to win back the White House for the Republican Party?

After one day on the stump, probably the most watched political debut ever, former President Bush's eldest son appeared headed in the right direction. No major gaffes. Enthusiastic crowds. "Within the margin of error," concluded one observer.

The governor did actually reveal two bits of news on his first weekend of campaigning: One, that he really is running for president. No more pretense that he's "just exploring" or waiting to gauge the response of the crowds. And two, that he will take part in the Ames, Iowa, straw poll in August - an important signal to Iowa Republicans that he takes them seriously.

Iowa's first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses, to be held in February 2000, position the state as a key early battleground in determining each party's nominee.

He also unsheathed for the political press corps an almost Reaganesque wit that will likely stand him in good stead as he learns the art of campaigning for national office. On the plane from Texas to Iowa on Saturday, he burst the bubble of unrealistic expectations with this quip to reporters: "Please stow your expectations securely in your overhead bins, as they may shift during the trip and can fall and hurt someone - especially me."

More important, Bush laid out for the first time the template of his campaign message, a speech - months in the crafting - that his staff says will be his standard remarks through the summer. Refinements, of course, will be incorporated. At each appearance, chief campaign strategist Karl Rove sat huddled over a printout, noting which lines won applause.

In the speech, Bush spoke in generalities - there will come a time for 10-point plans, he said - and affirmed his belief in the concept of "compassionate conservatism," an apparent effort to recast the GOP in a kinder and gentler light. "I'm running because my party must match a conservative mind with a compassionate heart," he declared at the outset.

BUSH hit upon standard Republican themes - lower taxes, reducing government regulation, strong defense - and then carefully incorporated an embrace of the less-fortunate. He spoke of working on a plan that "reduces marginal tax rates to create jobs," then added that the plan would also help "struggling families on the outskirts of poverty." He spoke of "prosperity with a purpose" - prosperity that leaves no one behind.

It was a speech that almost could have been delivered by a New Democrat, a declaration of political moderation that emphasizes responsibility as much as rights. The five-page speech, in fact, contains only one indirect reference to himself as a Republican. When asked why Bush is playing down his party affiliation, an aide responded: "His name is Bush - everyone knows he's a Republican."

Bush's opponents for the GOP nomination often tar him as a pale imitation of President Clinton. At an appearance yesterday in New Hampshire, GOP candidate Lamar Alexander repeated his rejection of compassionate conservatism as "weasel words." "You don't beat Al Gore by trying to sound like Bill Clinton," he said.

In a way, though, Bush appears to be trying to borrow the successful side of Mr. Clinton's legendary campaign style - the open-hearted, feeling-your-pain empathy - while contrasting himself with the president's well-known negatives. He pointedly begins each appearance with a tribute to his wife, Laura, who is always close by.

He speaks of rejecting the culture of "if it feels good, do it. If you've got a problem, blame someone else," a seeming reference to Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky and his near-inability to apologize for it.

Aside from contrasting himself with Clinton, Vice President Gore, and all the other Republican presidential candidates, Bush also faces the task of distinguishing himself from his father, the former president, without dishonoring him. When a reporter noted to a top campaign aide that Bush's speech read like something his father could have delivered, the aide quickly rejected the analogy. He made it clear that the younger Bush needed to craft a separate identity from his father, who, after all, failed to win reelection.

Indeed, George W. already seems more at ease with the banter of campaigning than his father did and doesn't have the proclivity for speaking in sentence fragments that became fodder for late-night comedy during the Bush presidency.

But at the same time, Bush the younger can use the public's fondness for his family - both his father and his mother, national grandma Barbara Bush - to good effect. The day after his Iowa debut, the Bush campaign repaired to the bosom of the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, for a "photo op" and lobster.

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