There is a framed flag in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin, old and tattered, the relic of a bygone era. It is the Gonzales Flag, a banner hoisted in a battle between Texas rebels and the Mexican army in 1835. The flag is emblazoned with the image of the Lone Star, beneath it a crudely drawn cannon, and below, in neatly stenciled capital letters are the words, "Come and take it."
While the flag is more than 150 years old, the Texas challenge was essentially the same Tuesday night. Gov. George W. Bush dared Sen. John McCain to come and take the Republican presidential nomination away from him, a nomination he has been favored to win for more than a year. But Tuesday night, the McCain rebellion appeared to come up short, with Bush posting big victories in most of the 13 states that held Republican contests Tuesday.
"Tonight we have good news from sea to shining sea," Bush said. "We promised a national campaign, and tonight we have a national victory. Republicans and conservatives across America have said they want me to lead the Republican Party to victory come November, and I am ready and eager to do so."
Bush won victories in California, New York, Ohio and Georgia, and a handful of other states, including Maine, a symbolic victory breaking McCain's regional stronghold on New England. All along, McCain advisors were hoping for a New England sweep and a win in New York to keep the senator's candidacy afloat. In all, Bush won more than 400 of the 613 Republican delegates at stake Tuesday.
Bush extended an olive branch to McCain, with nothing but kind words for the man he has blasted from the stump as recently as Monday. Tuesday, Bush congratulated McCain, saying, "We have our disagreements, but I respect him and his commitment to reform ... Soon, our party will unite and turn to the main task at hand -- ending the era of Clinton and Gore."
After Tuesday night, we are all where we always expected to be. Though the road took a fierce but short McCain detour, the country is now headed for a contest between the two establishment candidates, Bush and Vice President Al Gore.
The bulk of Bush's remarks Tuesday were aimed at Gore. Bush began by setting a gracious tone, congratulating the vice president, but in the same sentence labeled him "the candidate of the status quo in Washington, D.C., and he has a tough case to make in the general election."
Bush didn't miss a chance to link Gore to President Clinton, beginning with the issue of Social Security, saying the Clinton administration had "chosen to demagogue Social Security, not repair it." The other issues on the Bush laundry list were rebuilding the military, education reform, taxes and hints about how he might exploit Gore's role in the 1996 fund-raising scandals.
"These are the issues I will raise in my campaign," Bush said. "Someone will make history this November. Either we will ratify the status quo, or we will have a new beginning in American politics. I say American must not give Clinton-Gore a third term."
He also invited sure-fire criticism from presumptive Reform Party nominee Pat Buchanan, saying, "Legal immigration is not a source of national weakness, it is a sign of national success."
It was apparent early in the day that the Bush camp felt confident it had vanquished the McCain insurgency -- symbolized, perhaps, by its putting the famously McCain-friendly media into a small room in the Four Seasons hotel called "Waterloo."
As early exit polls came trickling into the governor's
mansion Tuesday morning, Bush was already moving into his
standard victory pose. Bush essentially took the day off,
waiting at home for the clock to strike 10 Texas time -- when the
polls close in California -- so he could come out and declare
But his victory was clear sooner than that. As soon as the polls
closed on the East Coast, Bush was declared the winner in
Georgia, Ohio and a handful of other states, while McCain picked
off Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut. "It appears that Gov. Bush's victory is wide and deep and virtually everywhere," Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes said Tuesday afternoon.
Earlier in the day, after eating his favorite breakfast -- home-made
granola -- and meeting with his senior staff, Bush took a reporter
running, kind of an early victory lap, just as he did in South
Carolina. It was then that Bush senior strategist Karl Rove received
the first exit poll results, and phoned in the good news to Bush's
When Bush returned from his run, he called Rove himself, only to have
the call interrupted by an enthusiastic supporter in Houston -- his
father, the former president. "President Bush is the most nervous
member of the family on Election Day," said Hughes. "The governor had
Karl call President Bush directly to give him all the details."
Tuesday night, as the McCain campaign pondered its next moves, the Bush camp
was hoping it can also declare victory over the forces of insurgency
that have bedeviled the Republican Party in the last national
elections. In 1992 and '96, it was the debt-reducing populism of Ross
Perot that sunk the GOP from outside the two party system. This year,
McCain launched that fight from inside the party itself, but failed
to peel off any substantial portion of the Republican base. Now, the
task falls to Bush to heal that rift heading into November.
It may be that Bush has been strengthened by the McCain challenge. In
the closing days before the 16-state Super Tuesday extravaganza, Bush
has looked confident on the stump, delivering his speeches in his
gunslinger stance -- one foot slightly in front of the other,
shoulders slumped slightly, itchy finger ready to pull the trigger.
The Bush campaign itself is markedly different from the big green
machine that rolled out of Austin last year. The governor's handlers
have let his leash go a bit, learning from McCain's rolling, 24/7
press conference that keeping their candidate away from the media
wasn't such a hot idea. After New Hampshire, the format of Bush's
events dramatically changed, as did his relationship to the press. He
truncated his standard stump speech, and started taking more
questions from the crowd à la McCain. And instead of pulling closed
the first-class curtain on his campaign plane, Bush now routinely
comes back to rub elbows with reporters, though the sessions are all
off the record.
Tuesday morning, Bush offered journalists a tour of the governor's
mansion, where he essentially shuffled papers and jaw-boned with
senior staff as television cameras beamed the images out to millions.
But watching Bush in that chair in the governor's office, it was as
if he no longer belonged there, because his heart and mind were
someplace else, focused on November, focused on Al Gore.