Think of Austin, Texas, as a phone booth and George W. Bush as Clark Kent. After Arizona Sen. John McCain handed Bush his hat with a decisive 19-point ass-whuppin' in the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 1, Bush ran into his metaphorical phone booth to change into a costume more suitable for battle.
Only thing is, he seems to be trying to change into McCain.
On Monday, Bush revealed a new slogan, one designed to wrest away McCain's maverick mantle -- "A Reformer With Results" the white-on-blue banners proclaim.
"I was defined as the insider [in New Hampshire], and those days are over," Bush said Tuesday night in Columbia. "I'm going to make it very clear to the voters of this state who Mr. Outsider is and who Mr. Insider is."
Bush's previously super-staged public appearances have taken on the tenor and stylistics of McCain's more freewheeling town-hall meetings -- no lectern, fewer canned answers, lots of audience questions. And while Bush isn't exactly inviting reporters to shoot the shit for hours like McCain's famous never-ending press conference, he has increased his press availabilities and even went jogging on Wednesday with Time magazine's Jay Carney.
"If you're tired of what's going on in Washington, D.C., if you're tired of polls and focus groups, come and join this campaign," said Bush -- who of course has done plenty of polling and made use of focus groups -- at Newberry College on Wednesday morning.
"I look forward to explaining to people that I've got a record," Bush said, "I'm a reformer with results ... If you want somebody from outside of the system, if you want somebody who can't lay claim to being a chairman of an important Senate committee ... come and join this campaign."
Bush is now selling himself as a maverick governor who took on the special interests in the education and judicial systems -- and won. "When I first ran for governor, I said, 'Give me a chance to reform the education system in the state of Texas,'" Bush said. "'Give me a chance to take on the established interests.' I took on that established interest."
Additionally, Bush says, "I ran on a platform of fighting for tort reform ... I was worried that a civil justice system that was unfair and unbalanced would drive capital out of my state. They said, 'No you better not do that. The plaintiffs' bar is too strong! They're too rich! They'll come after you!' And I said, 'Well, you misunderstand George W. Bush!' ... I want to take that reforming attitude and fight for tort reform at the federal level as well."
One reporter asked Bush what had happened to Bush's old campaign slogan of "compassionate conservatism."
"A 'reformer with results' is a conservative who's had compassionate results in the state of Texas," Bush explained in his own inimitable style.
Bush hasn't slipped into McCain's jumpsuit seamlessly. But by Wednesday, as Bush moved from Lee Atwater's alma mater in Newberry to a greasy spoon in Union to a National Guard armory in Gaffney, he seemed more confident and assured and, well, happy.
"I welcome the battle," he said over and over. "It is going to make me a better candidate and a better president."
"Competition brings out the best in him," said his spokeswoman, Karen Hughes. And it's true that Bush's new self-assuredness seems to manifest itself in a more pleasant demeanor, a more forceful stump speech and less petulance when he's confronted with a question he doesn't like.
Voters seem to like the new Bush as well. While polls in the wake of McCain's New Hampshire victory had the two in a statistical dead heat, a new American Research Group poll released on Thursday shows Bush seven points ahead of McCain, 46 percent to 39 percent.
Bush's new "reformer with results" shtick is only partly responsible for this, of course. Bush knows the state, having campaigned here for his father in 1988. South Carolina is Southern, like Texas. "They understand our accents here," jokes Hughes. Additionally, there is a born-again Christian streak that Bush strokes when dropping comments about a "higher calling."
And of course, one can't sit in McCain's maverick throne without first casting him aside. So, Bush has been coming at McCain hard, whacking at him like a weed, calling McCain the "Washington insider" and constantly referring to McCain's Commerce Committee chairmanship as evidence of his insider status. Bush even refers to his challenger as "Chairman McCain," as if the former Vietnam POW is ruler of the People's Republic of China -- kind of iffy language when you consider what both candidates were doing in 1971.
"I'm going to talk a lot about [McCain] saying one thing and doing another," Bush said Tuesday night in Columbia -- the charge he and his surrogates have been making all week. Many of the charges are based in reality, mainly because McCain is a flawed politician who doesn't always live up to his lofty rhetoric. This is also because -- as has been the problem with New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley -- it's pretty tough to square off against a street-fighter when you're standing on a pedestal built of your own sanctimony.
So when Bush cites McCain as having once railed against "rollovers" -- transferring money from a Senate campaign account to a presidential campaign account, for instance -- only to then go ahead and engage in the practice, Bush is right. John McCain is no stranger to hypocrisy, especially when it comes to campaign financing. McCain argues that he's been trying to repair the system while functioning within it, and that makes some sense, though McCain has racked up examples of egregious excess in fund-raising from those with business before his committee. And his retaliatory ad against Bush -- in which he compares the Texan's untrustworthiness with that of a certain Arkansan -- was a cheap shot.
But Bush's staffers should think twice before they take the above paragraph and excerpt it for their next negative ad. Because the very fact that these charges are being made by Bush could potentially negate them. He's even more vulnerable to many of the same charges.
"I want you to know that I'm going to tackle the status quo in Washington, D.C., with all my might," says Bush -- who's endorsed by 175 members of the House and 39 members of the Senate.
"I'm not going to be one of these politicians that on the one hand says, 'I'm going to try to clean up the campaign reform,' and on the other hand 'Pass the plate' to lobbyists and special interests," he says. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, as of Oct. 19, 1999, Bush had raised $4,538,226 from lobbyists, while McCain had raised $362,046.
"I want to continue the discussion we had yesterday about saying one thing and doing another in politics," Bush said on Wednesday, before citing a Boston Globe story from a year ago in which McCain is paraphrased (incorrectly, McCain claims) as saying he wouldn't use PAC money in his campaign, and then accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars of it anyway.
"Nothing illegal about taking PAC money," Bush noted. "I take PAC money."
Careening throughout the piney woods of the Palmetto State, Bush is joined at the hip by former Gov. Carroll Campbell. Campbell, a blow-dried, smooth operatin' popular two-term governor, is now earning some serious coin as president and CEO of the American Council of Life Insurers, the industry's No. 1 lobbying organization. The ACLI has given $174,603 in PAC and other contributions to candidates in the 1999-2000 election cycle, and an additional $62,750 in soft money.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Campbell's group -- which represents more than 80 percent of the private long-term care insurance industry -- lauded a $28 billion long-term care tax credit President Clinton had announced. Campbell then asked the president to offer even more in tax credits, which would benefit his industry. This is the man who is guiding Bush throughout the state while the Texas governor calls himself a Washington outsider.
When it comes to profiling as a reformer like McCain, Bush -- who certainly has his share of reforms under his Lone Star belt -- is arguably competitive. But when it comes to competing with McCain on who is more hypocritical, there's little question as to who the real winner of that contest is.