Curiosity ratchets up the Bush buzz

In New Hampshire, even Democrats wanted to see GOP candidate George W.

They came from Steubenville, Ohio, to visit her uncle, but while they were in town they figured they'd try to go see Gov. George W. Bush.

It was the Texas Republican's first day, ever, of presidential campaigning in New Hampshire, and Kay and Hank Kuzma soon discovered that tickets to the Lilac Luncheon of the New Hampshire Federation of Republican Women, which Mr. Bush would address, were long gone.

So, like teenagers trying to score passes to a sold-out rock concert, they scribbled "We need 2 tickets" on a piece of notebook paper and stood by the hotel. They got in. And they liked what they saw.

Score one for Bush: The Kuzmas are registered Democrats.

Throughout Bush's maiden voyage as a presidential candidate, the buzz has been deafening. At long last, the phantom contender - he of the Name, the killer poll numbers, and boffo fund-raising - has burst out of his Texas cocoon and introduced himself to those crucial earliest voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.

But Bush shouldn't be fooled by all the positive press. A healthy number of attendees interviewed at various events these past few days - an unscientific sampling, to be sure - still haven't decided who they'll back in next February's nominating contests. Iowa and New Hampshire voters take their first-in-the-nation duties seriously, and many said they wanted to see all the other candidates up close before making a decision.

"He seems like a kind, compassionate man," says Myrna Promer of Portsmouth, N.H., after Monday's Lilac Luncheon. "Now I want to hear everyone else." With 10 other Republicans in the race, she has her work cut out for her.

Then there were those who had a "so far, so good" attitude about Bush, but again, weren't ready to declare a decision. After all, the New Hampshire primary isn't for another eight months. And Bush himself hasn't given voters a whole lot to go on. At his first campaign press conference June 14, he refused to get specific about his positions on issues, saying he'd lay out plans "on my timetable."

Many voters, in response, tended to judge Bush based on his packaging - his manner, his demeanor, his family. "He's got a lotta energy," said one woman at Bush's first event in New Castle, N.H.

"He's got a TV-type personality," said Martin Cameron, a retired Air Force man from Portsmouth. "He projects well.... All the people in the state of Texas can't be wrong."

Many people at Bush events mentioned his famous family, headed by his father, former President Bush. On Sunday, the two George Bushes and their wives staged a poignant photo opportunity at the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine - a public reminder of the close bond the governor has with both his parents.

The next day, Sen. Judd Gregg (R) of New Hampshire, chairman of Bush's campaign in the state, told reporters the strong Bush family would play well with New Hampshire voters. "We don't feel the apple's fallen far from the tree," he said. "He's like his mother - he has a lot of opinions, and he's not shy about expressing them."

In both New Hampshire and Iowa, voters often mentioned the Bush family first when explaining the early appeal of the son, contrasting the Bushes' wholesome appearance with the exhausting saga of President Clinton's marriage problems.

"[Governor] Bush comes from a morally upstanding family," said Heather Roberts from Bow, N.H., while Bush worked the crowd at the fire station there. "I voted for his dad, so I'm interested in what he [the son] has to say."

Interest in Bush extended beyond those who may vote for him. In fact, in spite of his long praise for Bush, Mr. Cameron, the retired Air Force man, declared himself finally to be a firm supporter of conservative commentator Pat Buchanan, because of his opposition to free trade. At an event in Iowa, the first crowd member this reporter chose to approach was already backing former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander for the Republican nomination, and just came to see Bush out of curiosity.

Democrats were also sighted in all the Iowa and New Hampshire crowds. But as far as the Bush people were concerned, the more the merrier. The more bodies in a room, the more buzz.

It also didn't hurt that a poll out of New Hampshire this week commissioned by the Boston Herald and WCVB-TV showed Bush with a massive 34-point lead over his closest rivals: Bush logged 45 percent of likely Republican primary voters, while former American Red Cross chief Elizabeth Dole and Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona each got 11 percent.

Soft or not, these are the kind of numbers any front-runner can be quite comfortable with, thank you.

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