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Campaign Performance : Bush Shows How Well He Learned Reagan’s Lessons

Times Staff Writer

This scene from the presidential campaign may look familiar:

--Eight cheerleaders on the stage punctuate the candidate’s applause lines with brisk shakes of their red, white and blue pompons.

--Bales of hay have been strategically arranged to give the sterile civic center in a small Ohio town a down-home look for the cameras.

--At the lectern, standing behind the seal of his office, the presidential candidate dramatically pulls from his pocket the badge of a young policeman, slain while guarding a witness in a drug trial, to drive home just how tough he will be on drug dealers.

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The scene was played out in Lima, Ohio, the other day and has been staged with minor variations in cities and towns across the continent this autumn. If it mimics the look and feel, indeed the very essence, of a Ronald Reagan campaign performance, there is a reason: George Bush, the candidate at the center of this production, is demonstrating that after eight years he has learned well the lessons of his President on the campaign trail.

This is the same George Bush who developed a dogged and determined, but dry style on the stump 10 years ago when he set out to capture the Republican presidential nomination that Reagan eventually grabbed so firmly in 1980.

It is the same George Bush who was often an indifferent campaigner as he plodded through the spring primaries this year without igniting his audiences, and who once posed with a fishing rod while wearing a business suit. You wouldn’t catch Ronald Reagan doing that.

Now, Bush gladly follows his cues to climb aboard fire trucks in small-town parades. He gravitates, as the loving grandfather, toward the most photogenic baby in a crowd, but knows to turn briskly away from questioning reporters, pivoting back only to respond to the shouted query that fits in with the political message he is pushing that day.

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And when a 3x5 card is taped to a podium to tell him just where to stand to present the best picture--as it was in Waterbury, Conn., on Monday when he was endorsed by a group of Democrats--he readily toes the mark.

“I’ve seen a tremendous change in him,” said Steve Studdert, one of the senior advisers traveling with the vice president. “He’s grown increasingly comfortable with campaigning.”

The vice president still frequently bobbles his lines. He often says that unlike the days of old when the Democrats campaigned for “a chicken in every pot,” they are now threatening to put “a tax collector in every kitchen.” But one recent day it came out “a kitchen in every pot.”

And occasionally, when whipped up by a crowd, he coins some curious words when he ad-libs. On Saturday, at a rally in Plainfield, Ill., he called for the imposition of the death penalty for “those narked-up terrorist kind of guys.”

Still, he has seemingly developed much of the ease in large public settings that Reagan uses to great advantage, in turning a crowded arena into a living room, and a speech to 5,000 people into a chat with his closest friends.

It didn’t happen by accident. Scattered throughout the Bush campaign are veterans of past Republican presidential efforts, going back to Richard M. Nixon’s 1968 triumph and his Watergate-tarnished 1972 landslide.

But, said Thomas C. Griscom, former White House communications director and now professor of communications at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, “Most of the people involved are Reagan people. They worked with the President. They constructed the images. They’ve had eight years of on-the-job training. . . . They know where to put those place cards, where to put those flags.”

He continued:

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“The biggest question was whether you could adapt George Bush to that style. The answer is ‘yes, you could.’ ”

It helps, of course, if Bush has the right props.

On Friday, at the California Highway Patrol Academy in Sacramento, he watched as the familiar black-and-white sedans squealed around a track in a demonstration, for Bush and the cameras, of high-speed driving techniques, to reinforce his “tough on crime” message.

In Tacoma, Wash., on Thursday, his endorsement by the Marine Engineers Beneficial Assn. was graphically portrayed when Gene Defries, president of the 50,000-member maritime union, presented him with an oversize card granting him honorary membership in the association, while a stage full of union members stood behind him.

And, just as Reagan turned into a trademark the slightly surprised look and tilt of the head that said “aw, shucks,” Bush is perfecting his own personal signatures: an exaggerated wink for the close-up cameras and a double thumbs-up gesture, fists extended, that says, “Everything is OK.”

Of course, it doesn’t always work. Occasionally, Bush reverts to old habits.

Instead of facing the podium squarely, he’ll stand at an angle. His gestures turn awkward. He gives in to the imploring photographers and poses with a gift hat on his head--prompting a former White House veteran of the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations to observe that Reagan may be able to wear anything from a baseball cap to a sombrero and look dashing, but that Bush would do best to always remain bareheaded.

And his quips may sometimes fall flat. After the screeching auto demonstration Friday in Sacramento, the best he could manage was, “That is something.”

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Staff writer John Balzar contributed to this story.


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