Enter George W. Bush, nice guy

Putting rough days behind him, he agrees on debates, mingles more with crowds and doesn't wilt -- much -- under the pressure.

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News that George W. Bush would finally bow to the debate requests of Al Gore and the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates seemed to fit nicely during a week when Bush was trying to show his more open, accessible side — by talking with high school students, answering questions and mingling with crowds.

But such added exposure — especially under the pressure of watching his poll numbers drop for the first time this summer — has its drawbacks. When Bush visited a local diner Thursday afternoon, a woman asked him about a Vanity Fair article by writer Gail Sheehy that alleges he is dyslexic. He disputed the accuracy of Sheehy’s story by saying: “I never interviewed her.”

In recent days, the campaign has promised a transformation in style, if not substance, placing the governor in more intimate settings and cutting back on his informal chat sessions with reporters on his campaign plane. Bush’s advisors have complained that these chats with reporters — gaffes and all — have ended up dominating the news, hurting the campaign’s ability to control the headlines. So, as promised, Bush’s swing through California is highlighting smaller events like his appearance at Santa Ana High School Thursday morning.

Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said the smaller formats are standard for a presidential candidate at this stage of a campaign. “I think coming out of the convention, there’s a lot of energy, a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of excitement,” he said. “That was the time to do rallies and mobilize big groups and do more of the rally-type format. Now’s the time for us to focus on the governor’s real plans for real people.”

Though Bush was accused of ducking similar small gatherings during the early part of his campaign, when John McCain jumped from town meeting to town meeting, he used the format to help him rebound in South Carolina. Thursday, Bush seemed to thrive amid the smaller setting. He stood before the students in the school library without a lectern, with the students serving as a metaphoric buffer zone between Bush and reporters, who circled in the background as he answered questions.

While the Bush campaign likes to boast that the governor has visited more than 100 schools during his campaign, many of these have been pit stops to read “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” to kindergartners. Most of his high school stops have been larger rallies, shielding Bush from the often-hostile high school audiences. Nobody in the campaign could remember the last time Bush took questions from high schoolers.



There is a marked change between the candidate who first set foot in California last summer and today’s Republican nominee. Bush has been more accessible to both reporters and voters than he was 15 months ago. While the campaign sought to hide the governor then, keeping him strictly to the script and focused on raising cash, Bush’s dependence on a more intimate, unscripted format this time out is a sign of his increased comfort level on the stump. For all of his well-publicized bumbling (this week, he had a hell of a time with the word “subliminal”), Bush seemed comfortable as he fielded questions from the students on everything from U.S. aid to Columbia to sex education.

Even his agreement to the contested debates looked like an attempt to appear more congenial. Yet it only sets the locations and dates of the three debates — Oct. 3 in Boston, Oct. 11 in Wake Forest, N.C., and Oct. 17 in St. Louis — not their formats. (Vice presidential candidates Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman will meet in Danville, Ky., on Oct. 5.) Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes said Bush wants a more free-flowing format in hopes of avoiding the “canned, stilted formats that have been the case in past commission debates.” Hughes said the two sides will meet again Friday to discuss formats.

Hughes was unrepentant in announcing the agreement, continuing the Bush attack on Al Gore’s credibility. “What Vice President Gore did all along was play politics with the debate issue,” she said. “Unlike Vice President Gore, Governor Bush says what he means and means what he says.”

The Gore campaign had a muted response, as if a strict “no gloating” order had been sent forth from the Nashville brain trust. “We are very pleased by the agreement and that the American people will have a chance to hear the candidates debate,” said Gore spokesman Jano Cabrera.

During his swing Thursday, the governor seemed to derive strength from his ability to keep most of the questions focused on education, an issue he feels comfortable talking about. He even wove in snippets of his standard stump speech as the students peppered him with questions about everything from teen pregnancy to teacher training.

“We’ll love the babies,” Bush said, reprising his emphasis on “character education” as opposed to tackling the sticky issue of abortion. “But we’ve got to make it clear to people that having a baby out of wedlock will make it awfully difficult for the baby and the mom. And we’ve got to make it clear to the men of society, the definition of a man is not somebody who fathers a child and walks away saying, ‘This baby isn’t my problem.’”

Just as he was last year in California, Bush is still a prodigious fundraiser. He capped his day raising an estimated $250,000 for the Republican Party in San Diego for the state’s Victory 2000 fund. In all, Bush is expected to raise $1.25 million in hard and soft money during his two-night stay, according to campaign sources.

Technically, Bush cannot raise any more money for his campaign now that the Federal Election Commission has doled out $67 million to each of the major party campaigns. So Bush used his evenings here to raise money for California’s Republican Party and for its efforts to spend on his behalf this fall. “Now that raising money for my campaign is over, it’s time for raising money for our local parties to make sure they’re ready,” he said at a fundraising event Wednesday. Those were welcome words to the state’s bedraggled party, which is extremely gun-shy from the past two GOP presidential campaigns, which closed up shop early in California.

In what has become par for the course in the state, Bush has had to answer questions about whether his campaign is coming to play here for real. Playing in California means spending money — lots of it — in the nation’s biggest and most expensive media market.

When his first major ad buy did not include California, the state’s newspapers made sure to point that out. But when the Republican National Committee made a small, targeted ad buy in the state earlier this month, it was dismissed as symbolic. Today, the Bush campaign released a new ad, challenging Gore on prescription drugs, education and tax cuts. According to Bush spokesman McClellan, it will run in the 18 states targeted by the campaign as key battlegrounds, and California is not among them.

Despite his lack of spending in the Golden State, the governor says he understands the importance of the state. “We win California, and you’re listening to the new president of the United States,” he said Wednesday. His advisors note that the Republican Party is doing the candidate’s bidding, spending $500,000 to $600,000 per week now that the new ad is running statewide. A senior campaign source said Bush would spend at least $12 million in the state, and that the number could grow as high as $20 million.

But in the short term, the campaign has to recover from the past rough couple of weeks for the Texas governor. First, Bush saw his lead evaporate in the polls. Polls in California, for example, which once showed Bush in a statistical dead heat with Gore, now have the vice president sitting atop a double-digit lead. Then Bush fell prey to a series of gaffes — one in which he called a New York Times reporter an asshole, another regarding possible subliminal messages in a Republican Party ad — that knocked his campaign off message. The governor is hoping that his smaller events will help turn the tide and regain his earlier momentum.

Those were the glory days for the Bush campaign, before the emergence of McCain, when Bush was treated as the media darling and GOP savior. Times have definitely changed.

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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