Riding a wave of goodwill, endorsements and fat campaign contributions, Texas Gov. George W. Bush on Monday braved the comfort of the family estate in Kennebunkport, Maine, and crossed over the Piscataqua River and into the treacherous rapids of New Hampshire primary politics.
In leaping from Vacationland -- the state that exemplifies The Way Life Oughta Be -- into the Granite State, whose inhabitants insanely declare their determination to Live Free Or Die, Bush proved quite the adept political swimmer, making few waves while somehow seeming to simultaneously create quite a splash.
Everyone on the Good Ship Bushipop is happy and dry. They are, in the words of their captain, "positive and hopeful and upbeat and optimistic." And why not? The finance chair of the Bush 2000 campaign, Don Evans, says that the campaign should report collections of $15.2 million by the end of the month. The list of endorsers reads like a Who's Who in the Republican Party. And the latest New Hampshire poll, conducted by the American Research Group of Manchester, N.H., has Bush kicking proverbial arse against the entirety of the crowded field of Republican contenders, with 38 percent of state voters leaning toward voting for him -- 22 points ahead of his closest rival, sugar-coated Red Cross dominatrix Elizabeth Dole.
"Do you plan on helping the campaign out in any official capacity?" I asked Neil Bush, 44, brother of the anointed one.
"It's kind of bigger than me at this stage," Neil replied.
As Neil recalled, the first time the Bush brood turned out to have one of its own assume the mantle of Leader of the Free World, things didn't go so well. While stumping for his padre in 1980, Neil noted at a jam-packed supporter reception at Saint Anselm College, "we'd be lucky to get 10 people at an event like this." Things weren't so tough in this go-round
"It's going really well; he's certainly excited," seconded Marvin Bush, 42, another member of the brethren. "When he came up to Maine from Iowa on dad's birthday [on Saturday] he was really heartened by the response there -- by the supporters; by the size of the crowds. In '79-'80, we went out there [to Iowa] as surrogates for our father, and on a good day you had 10, 15, 20 people in a room. This time, all the events are overflowing with people and enthusiasm."
Indeed, the flaccid 1980 effort to elect the elder George Bush ruler of the universe began with then-New Hampshire Gov. Hugh Gregg dispatching a half-dozen young men he called his "Zekes" (a ragtag crew comprising Neil Bush and five others in their 20s) throughout the state. Now, one of the original "Zekes," Joel Maiola -- an advisor to Gregg's son, Sen. Judd Gregg -- is coordinating Bush's New Hampshire effort, and its kick-off, at least, could serve as the gold standard for every forthcoming presidential primary campaign.
Not that everyone's quite on board. Bush's arrival in the Granite State was greeted with a bilious editorial from the state's largest newspaper, the raw-meat-chewing Manchester Union-Leader. The paper noted that "if something more than a winning smile is needed, if the voters demand some real substance, then Gov. Bush has yet to prove himself." Of Bush's five years as governor of Texas, the paper said, "the Bush style ... is to lay low, look for popular issues, let others do the hard work, and then step up to claim credit in the hour of victory."
At 8:30 am on Monday, Bush's motorcade drove into New Castle, N.H., -- a teeny, ritzy island community of 800 residents off the coast of Portsmouth, an hour east of Manchester and an hour north of Boston.
Despite the early morning hours, and the foreboding gray clouds, the media scrum was in full fervor. Media stars like the New Yorker's Joe Klein, Hardball's Christopher Matthews, and Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard and NBC's David Bloom were all there, some posing for photographs and signing autographs for the God-fearing citizens of New Hampshire, as if they themselves were running for something. They were there to see and be seen; it was the political event of the season, Bush's primary bar mitzvah, where he stood before the world and said, "Today I am a candidate."
Strolling through a small group of jubilant kiddies, and wading through an affable mass of well-wishers, Bush took to the crowd like a pickpocket to Times Square on New Year's Eve. Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., took to the stage to introduce "somebody who I think is going to be an extraordinary president." Understating the wild fracas of Republican officials lining up to endorse the presumptive front-runner, Gregg took out a list of the 280 Bush 2000 chairmen across the state -- which has 290 voting precincts. "So we are ready to roll," Gregg said.
Bush then thanked Gregg, and said that "Judd's job and the organization's job is to turn out the vote," while his was to "set the tone, bring the message, look the people in the eye and say 'I want your vote.' My job is to generate enthusiasm in New Hampshire."
Under the tent of the New Castle kickoff, to the soothing background sound of foghorns, Bush took some questions from the salivating hordes of media folk. We didn't lay a glove on him. We learned that, as president, he wouldn't have a litmus test for Supreme Court nominees, he opposes "quotas and racial preferences," is concerned about Kosovo and proud of his Texas tax cuts. Insisting that there would be plenty of time for 10-point plans and detailed budget manifestos -- and that he would offer such substance on his timetable, not the media's -- Bush dodged and weaved and joked and jostled and showed that he was more than ready for prime time.
A New Hampshire reporter asked Bush if any of his youthful exuberances were anything voters should be concerned about. Bush sidestepped it like he was hopping over manure in shiny new steel-tipped, bull-skin boots.
"There is a game in Washington," Bush said. "It's called 'gotcha.' It's the game where they float a rumor and make the candidate prove a negative and I'm not playing the game, Jack. I am going to try to elevate the discourse to ideas and philosophy. Here is what the people of New Hampshire will learn about me. I made mistakes 20 or 30 years ago, but I've learned from my mistakes ... What is important to know is that should I be fortunate enough to win, that when I put my hand upon the Bible, I will swear to uphold the dignity and honor of the office. That is what I hope people learn about me."
The reporter rolled again, coming up snake-eyes once more. "You can ask as many questions as you like," Bush said. "That's my answer."
Then Bush and his wife, Laura, trudged up the hill to the New Castle library, where two dozen munchkins with baby Old Glorys sat patiently waiting for the nation's next first mommy and daddy to read to them. Aides scrambled about, trying to ensure the perfect photo-op, replacing chairs, reshuffling seating arrangements, replacing the books "The Presidents" and "The First Ladies" with "Officer Buckle and Gloria" and "The Very Hungry Caterpillar."
The Bushes then shuffled into the room, greeted the kids, and encouraged photographers to flash their lightbulbs in honor of a birthday girl.
"We like to say that reading is freedom," Bush said. His wife, the librarian-turned-Texas first lady, helms a state anti-illiteracy campaign. "How many of you read more than you watch TV?" Bush asked. Two-thirds of the kids raised their hands. He then read aloud the tale of the "Very Hungry Caterpillar," who turns into a colorful butterfly at the story's end.
"How'd that happen?" one child asked
"That's just what happens in life," Bush replied.
After that, Dubya-palooza packed up into buses and rental cars and made its way west to Manchester, where Bush was the featured speaker at the annual New Hampshire Federation of Republican Women Lilac Luncheon. There he delivered the remarks that since Saturday's sojourn to Iowa he's been shaping into a standard campaign stump speech. It goes a little somethin' like this:
1. Laura Bush:
He starts out by introducing his lovely wife, Laura, saying that she's "the best decision he ever made." (Laughter and applause.) Bush then observes that she's been a great first lady of Texas, and that "if all goes well," she'll make a great first lady of the United States of America. Laura stands, smiles, and waves twice.
2. Sneaky apology for being late to the race:
Bush then apologizes for "bein' late" to the task of campaigning, but notes that when he ran for reelection in '98, he pledged to the voters of Texas that he would remain in Texas until the legislative session had been completed. "I hope you understand that I'm a man of my word," Bush said, not-so-subtly contrasting himself with President Clinton. "When I say somethin', I mean it."
3. Alliteration Corner:
The main reason he's running for office, Bush says, is that he wants to "make sure that there's a purpose to our prosperity." (Clinton and Gore think that they "invented prosperity," he jokes, "but they didn't invent prosperity any more than they invented the Internet." The crowd usually laughs really hard at this.)
4. Appeal to voters with heart -- and SUVs:
The heft of Bush's remarks -- as well as most of his appeal to those suburbanites lost to Clinton-Gore in '92 and '96 -- speaks to his much bandied-about compassionate conservatism, which he sometimes refers to as "conservativism." He defines this with a little sing-song: "It is conservative to cut taxes; it is compassionate to help people save and give and build. It is conservative to reform welfare by insisting on work; it is compassionate to take the side of charities and churches that confront the suffering that remains. It is conservative to confront illegitimacy; it is compassionate to offer practical help to women and children in crisis." And so on.
Bush quite credibly claims to be an optimist who dares to accentuate the positive. Where Clinton felt our pain, Bush wants to heal the wounds that the pain-feeler caused. He is, as has been observed, a tax-cuttin', pro-gun, pro-life conservative painted yellow and decorated with a smiley face. But his empathy doesn't ring hollow or false. He does stand out, not only among his GOP challengers, but also next to Gore, simply in the fact that he even mentions the poor and disenfranchised in his speeches. Another neat counterintuitive trick he plucks out every now and then: He will occasionally habla Espanol.
5. Aw shucks:
Somewhere sprinkled in the four previous essentials, Bush makes sure that everyone knows that he doesn't take his front-runner status for granted, that he needs your help, and that he knows how Grand Canyon-sized a leap it is from the emasculated Texas governorship to king of the world. His ever-kiddin' manner, and goofy Bush humility enables him to seem modest, even while he's telling you -- as he inevitably does -- that if Texas were a nation unto itself , it would constitute the 11th largest economy in the world. When he delivers this remark, people always laugh, despite the fact that it is in no way amusing. This is because he delivers the line with a faux-hokey modesty, poking fun at himself for bringing it up while bringing it up.
And he doesn't take himself too seriously. Or us, either. As we made our way out of the New Castle library, I made some smart-ass remark to a photographer that Bush -- who remained vague on the issues -- was probably going to give his next speech about the "Very Hungry Caterpillar."
Unbeknownst to me, however, Bush was walking right by me as I spewed my Fourth Estate skepticism. The governor turned to me and said, with a smirk, "Are you a very hungry caterpillar?!"
I didn't have anything to say in response (though, in many ways, I am a hungry caterpillar, a very hungry caterpillar). Having dispensed with my cynicism handily, he gave that Bush half-smile and walked off.
"Serves you right," said the photographer.
But as Pamela Lindberg, president of the Capital Area Republican Women's Club, pointed out, Bush's going to have to soon start making with the details.
"He looks strong," Lindberg said at the Lilac Luncheon, "but we don't know where he stands on the issues." Even on the issues where Bush has specifics, they seem somewhat hastily sketched. Ask him about building up our defense budget, for instance -- which he says is one of his top two priorities -- and you'll hear two baby-sized ideas: We need anti-ballistic missile systems, and we need greater cash dedicated to intelligence. At this stage, there doesn't seem to be much beyond the two bullet points than the two bullet points.
That didn't seem to matter much this week, though. The New Hampshire crowds were as sweet and thick as syrup. He did the obligatory live interview with New Hampshire's one major television station, hit a small college and a local firehouse, did the factory shift-change meet-and-greet, and finally hit a greasy spoon. Everyone loved him. And with that, Dubya-palooza bid the Granite State farewell.
"It couldn't have gone better," Sen. Gregg said. "Huge crowds, extraordinary enthusiasm ... All we can do is set the table, and then he's gotta deliver the meal." And he did, Gregg said. "His message was right on!"
But as the Bush folk exhaled at the end of the trip, I thought about how happy everybody seemed to be -- and how that joy just can't last. Bush will stumble, for one. Though money-man Evans says that "he's not scared of making a mistake, and that's why he'll make less of 'em; he'll stumble -- but he'll laugh about it," that's a rosy outlook. Politics is ugly, and New Hampshire primary politics can get about as hideous as a frat basement at Leper U.
This is the state that gave us Gennifer Flowers and the draft letter, remember?
And the same sort of forces that hobbled Clinton in '92 when he wasn't looking seem to be in play here as well. Clearly, Gov. Bush's GOP opponents aren't about to fold their hands just yet, and plenty of them seem to be crossing their arms when Bush tries to grab their hands and start a sing-along. Support for the anointed one is wide, but it's also shallow, and some strong and strange forces are afoot to tear it apart.
At the Lilac Lunch, for instance, a young woman handed out professionally-designed "fact" sheets on how Gov. Bush raised taxes on Texans 75 times.
"Who printed this up?" I asked her.
"The truth about Bush will come out," she said.
"What's your name? Who are you with?"
"The truth about Bush will come out."
And so on, and so on, robotically.
"I can tell you a billion reasons why this thing is wrong," Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes said when I showed her the blue and yellow pages of hit lit. "Every tax increase he supported was part of a net tax decrease of a billion dollars."
But the existence of the negative Kinko's products isn't really the point. I saw the young woman again as I drove up to St. Anselm College. She was standing on the side of the road with two other young folk, holding a banner that blared "Sign the Pledge!", which referred to a no-new-taxes pledge that Bush had originally balked at signing, but then -- perhaps there was no winning move for the Son of Read My Lips -- Bush cravenly scribbled his John Hancock. Clearly Bush is going to face some well-funded opposition, and it will only get uglier. His refusal to insist on litmus tests -- most notably, on abortion -- for Supreme Court justices will no doubt stir up bedrock conservatives, who are still miffed at his dad for putting Souter on the court -- and the next president will likely get to pick two more members of the Supremes.
But the most interesting observation I heard about a possible Bush hurdle came from -- of all people -- a Bush press secretary, Mindy Tucker. Tucker told me that reporters, seeing Bush connect with people, much like another promising, hopeful, upbeat former candidate, were a little disturbed. And both reporters and voters have told Tucker: "We were burned once before by a guy like this. We don't want to be fooled again."
So maybe we've all got it completely backwards. We though Gore was the one who'd be tainted by Clinton. But is it possible that it's Bush -- another Southern boomer with charm, zeal, a suspicious past and a squishy quest for a Third Way -- who's going to suffer from our suspicions?
Clinton made us weary, sure, but will we be wary as well?
Do we dare to trust again?