FRESNO, Calif. -- Forget for a moment that Texas Gov. George W. Bush may be the only man in America who can pack a room with 500 people in the city of Oakland and have fewer than five black faces in the entire crowd. As Bush takes his valedictory lap around California before returning home to Austin Monday night, it is as if Arizona Sen. John McCain were already nothing more than a distant memory. At least that's how it looks from inside the Bush press bubble, which shuttled across California with the Texas governor Sunday on a whirlwind tour, hitting four airports in one day. From Oakland to Fresno, and from Stockton to San Diego, Bush made it clear that he was already focused on the contest in November.
It's hard to get excited about much of anything when you follow a candidate for months, watching him give the same stump speech over and over again. Even those of us who hop back and forth among the different candidates get tired of the routine. But it sharpens your ear to nuance, and every little addition or subtraction to a stump speech becomes a media event. The latest addition to the Bush repertoire is his use of the word "standard-bearer" to refer to himself, which he did more than a dozen times in Oakland, and many more times in his speeches throughout the day. Perhaps more significant, strategically speaking, is that any mention at all of McCain has disappeared from Bush's stock remarks.
Bush's latest California swing, which culminates with a "Tonight Show" appearance on Monday night, was like stepping into a time warp. Suddenly, we were all back in the summer of '99, a time when Bush was the unchallenged GOP front-runner, and McCain was but a twinkle in the soon-to-be-adoring eyes of the national media. Watching the Bush victory march through California Sunday was to remember a simpler time for the Republican Party, when it was united behind a Texas governor who had been elected to a second term with unprecedented margins, including record support from Latinos and women.
Once again, it is a time without an immediate sense of urgency, probably because most polls show Bush's lead growing here, both among Republican voters and in the so-called beauty contest in which independent and Democratic voters can participate. In fact, the only indication that there is an election at all Tuesday was the familiar Bush refrain that he uses as a lead into election days.
"There's something in the air here in the great state of [fill in the blank]," goes the routine. "It's called victory!" All of his speeches in California began with this riff, but with this sixth sense, Bush is batting only 2 for 4. He was wrong on Feb. 1 in New Hampshire, right two weeks later in South Carolina, wrong again in Michigan and Arizona and right on the money Tuesday in Virginia and North Dakota. (His presumed victory in the beauty contest in Washington state has not yet been confirmed.)
As for this week's showdown, even pundits who have been uncharacteristically humbled by the seesaw nature of the early primaries are predicting now that Bush will win the state's 162 Republican delegates Tuesday night. The only remaining intrigue in California is whether McCain can pull out a victory in the state's blanket primary, where he is currently neck-and-neck with Bush. A split decision in California coupled with a McCain victory in New York and a sweep of New England would set the TV talk show circuit abuzz yet again, with journalists and junkies spinning all sorts of tales of political intrigue, hypothetical scenarios and a potential showdown on the floor of the Republican National Convention this summer in Philadelphia.
But the posture adopted by Bush and his team makes it clear that they don't expect any of that to happen. The fact that Bush changed his schedule to spend Tuesday recuperating at the governor's mansion in Austin, and that he plans to spend election night on his home turf (where there is no primary Tuesday), is perhaps the clearest sign of that confidence.
And judging from the polls, as well as from the size and enthusiasm of Bush's crowds in California Sunday, he has reason to be optimistic. Though he never strayed more than a mile from any airport, Bush's blitz hit four of the state's 11 media markets. Monday he is scheduled to hit the megamarket of Los Angeles along with San Diego and Orange County before heading home to Austin that night.
Throughout California, Bush has been joined by the Republican stalwarts who lined up early behind his campaign, including California campaign chairman and financial rainmaker Gerry Parsky and state Sen. Jim Brulte, a former Bush California co-chairman and now finance director of the state Republican Party. In Stockton, Bush was joined onstage by Rep. Richard Pombo and developer Alex Spanos, owner of the San Diego Chargers and a big financial booster of both Republicans generally and Bush specifically.
The stop in Oakland seemed to be packed with people from Silicon Valley rather than natives. As if playing into some kind of Bay Area stereotype, a group of 25 death penalty protesters sneaked in undercover, wearing Bush stickers on their lapels, and interrupted the governor's speech with chants calling for a moratorium on the death penalty. Bush hardly missed a beat, continuing to talk over them as security guards led the group outside.
As he moved to the more conservative bastions of the Central Valley, California's agricultural center, later in the day, the crowds grew in both size and enthusiasm. The Central Valley is a more natural fit for any Republican candidate. There, even the Democrats are conservative, with Democratic Rep. Gary Condit siding with Republicans at least as often as he does with his own party.
Last week, McCain drew good crowds throughout the valley, but not ones as large as Bush's. In Fresno, more than 1,000 people braved a fierce downpour to gather in an airport hangar to rally for the governor. Before the event, Bush blasted Al Gore's new embrace of campaign finance reform. "Vice President Gore must have forgotten what administration he's been a part of," Bush said. "This is an administration that has violated every campaign law, it seems like, on the books. He's the person who went to a Buddhist temple to raise money from people who made a vow to poverty. I look forward to running against Vice President Gore."
Bush received another rowdy welcome in Stockton, where more than 2,000 people filed into another airport hangar to wave pom-poms and flags and cheer Bush on. Bush seemed confident and calm, slowed only slightly by a nagging cold. He was almost better for the illness. After his loss in New Hampshire, Bush seemed to be operating on the principle that his message wasn't getting across because he wasn't saying it loud enough. He turned up the volume knob on his speech two or three notches to prove that he is a fighter. While effective in South Carolina, this new shtick often made him look and sound a touch maniacal.
On Sunday, his delivery was back to its pre-New Hampshire volume, emphatic and forceful without feeling forced. For the first time in weeks, Bush exuded strength and empathy. Operating at 90 percent means for Bush that some of the frenetic energy that often makes him appear awkward on the stump was simply gone. Accordingly, on Sunday, slowed by sickness and boosted by confidence, George W. Bush looked downright presidential.