When George W. Bush got his clock cleaned in the New Hampshire primary, some Texans wondered if their man might have been the victim of some anti-Texan bias.
After all, Mr. Bush did what usually works in Texas: He shook every hand at town-hall meetings, accrued a pile of endorsements, and flooded the airwaves with campaign ads. But by the time poll results showed Bush trailing Sen. John McCain by 17 points, pundits who once called Bush "charismatic" and a "born leader" started characterizing him as "staged" and "an empty vessel."
The defeat stung the Bush camp, setting off a flurry of finger-pointing, conference calls, and a weekend summit for Bush and his advisers in Austin. While those who know the governor don't expect him to change either his staff or his media-driven campaign strategy, they do say Bush will probably have to shelve his Mr. Nice Guy persona and run a more focused - and more negative - campaign than he ever has in his political career (all six years of it).
Of course, it helped that the winsome Bush could try out the "tough Texan" role in Delaware this week, a state where he needed a clear primary win - and got it. But the true tests lie ahead.
"Bush has to regain some of that lead in the next three primaries - South Carolina, Arizona, and Michigan - or he's in deep trouble," says Ross Ramsey, editor of the Texas Weekly political newsletter, based in Austin. "The question is, is he a fighter, or does he have a glass jaw?"
There's probably no single reason Bush mustered only 30 percent of the vote in New Hampshire. But as Texas observers see it, key factors may be Bush's relative inexperience in national politics and a relatively strong Republican field. In his two runs for governor, Bush has not faced an opponent in the GOP primary.
"Bush hasn't faced anywhere near the adversity the other candidates have faced," says David Guenthner, editor of the conservative Lone Star Report in Austin. "But once you're in a campaign, you've got to be in it all the way. McCain is playing to win. Bush is playing not to lose."
In the wide-open state of Texas, where there are 17 entirely separate media markets from El Paso to Amarillo to Houston, Bush could afford to repeat whole sections of his stump speech without alienating voters. In this sense, Texas is more like the rest of the nation than New Hampshire is, which has one dominant TV station and one major newspaper. In such close quarters, Bush's repetitions seemed to many voters to be either evasive or robotic.
"When you talk to the Bush folks, you can tell they're reading from a script," says Mr. Guenthner. It's a survival skill that saves many staffers from embarrassing themselves, but it can also wear thin among voters. "During the '94 [gubernatorial] campaign, if you asked George W. Bush about abortion, he'd say, 'I believe we should make sure children can read by the third grade,' " Guenthner laughs.
For their part, Bush staffers are now saying that in coming weeks Bush will "focus on his message as a reformer with a proven record of results."
"Everybody is reenergized and enthusiastic," says Bush spokesman Scott McClellan. "Governor Bush is out there showing he's a fighter and he's ready for the competition."
While McCain's New Hampshire victory may have taken some momentum from the Bush campaign, some experts say Bush will have the long-term advantage, particularly leading up to the all-important 12-state Titanic Tuesday primary on March 7.
For one, Bush is likely to pick up many Steve Forbes supporters, now that the publishing magnate is quitting the race. Then, too, Bush's massive institutional support in every state of the Union - including far-off territories such as Guam and Samoa - and his ability to run TV and radio ads in every major market give him an edge over the less-well-funded McCain campaign.
"The Republican nomination was decided on Nov. 1, when Bush arrived with $57 million in campaign funds," says Dane Strother, a Democratic media consultant in Washington. With such a war chest, Bush can reach voters in all 12 states of the March 7 primaries, while McCain will still have to pick and choose which states to invest in.
Chuck McDonald, a Democratic media consultant who ran Gov. Ann Richards's 1994 campaign against Bush, agrees that Bush has the long-term advantage. "There are 48 other states to be addressed, so when you get to Super Tuesday, you have to be in all the states all the time, and the only way to do that is TV."
That said, South Carolina could still provide some surprises. Like the New Hampshire primary, the Palmetto State's Republican primary allows independents and Democrats to cross over to vote for Republican candidates. Because McCain seems to appeal to these groups more than Bush does, McCain could pull off an upset.
"If there's a loss in South Carolina for Bush, the whole campaign will start to unravel," says Richard Murray, a political scientist at the University of Houston. "Half of Bush's supporters are investors, and they'll switch to McCain to hedge their bets. The McCain people will get Bush's contributor list off the Net and start calling them to switch."
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