How Presidential Race Was Won--and Lost : George Bush

Times Political Writer

Afloat in the cold North Atlantic last summer in his beloved ocean racing boat Fidelity, George Bush took stock. The coming autumn looked forbidding, his prospects for victory remote. You might say, to borrow a one-liner of his, that a tunnel awaited him at the end of the light.

But he reflected on his long career in politics. And George Herbert Walker Bush found solace.

Yes, he was behind in the polls, way behind. In modern times, nobody seeking the presidency was so disliked. They called him a wimp, an elitist, a bumbler. Even history was against him. No sitting vice president had won election to the presidency in more than a century. Scandals were brewing in the Reagan Administration. And, worst of all, the public seemed hell-bent for change after eight years of Republicans.

Against all that, Bush had one thing--his experience in national politics.


He had run national campaigns three times. He knew their frightening velocity, the scorching lights and relentless scrutiny of the massed media, the vast complications of geography and campaign technology, the decisions, the discipline. The pace.

Luckily for Bush, speed and noise exhilarate him.

‘Around This Track Before’

“What I’ve got that he cannot match is that I’ve been around this track before. I know the pace. Experience--you can’t beat that,” Bush told a reporter that summer afternoon. He opened the throttles on the twin V-8s powering his Cigarette racer and headed into the open swells.


His campaign team was likewise an expression of his abiding trust in experience. It was composed of war horses wearing battle ribbons from a generation of Republican presidential campaigns. There were Dick Nixon’s men, and Jerry Ford’s and a legion of Reaganites. Even the young among them counted their previous campaigns by the score.

These were not people picked first out of friendship or personal loyality or political ideology. They were chosen because they knew winning.

Bush’s Campaign Team

For better and for worse, these were the operatives who had pushed out the boundaries and fashioned the rules of modern telepolitics: advertising guru Roger Ailes, pollster Robert Teeter, Washington man-about-town James A. Baker III, strategist Lee Atwater and the others.

With them and with luck, George Bush counted on finding the soft spots and bending this election his way.

Right from the start, this would be a campaign of strategy, a fight to control the game board. Relentless offense. Command of the pace. It would not be eloquence or vision or charisma or inspiration that would win the election. Experience told him that much.

Trolled for Bluefish

That summer day off the Maine coast was Bush’s last to play. He took Fidelity slamming across the swells and zig-zagging through the forests of lobster pots at dizzying speed. Later, he trolled for bluefish, exclaiming with delight at the beeps on his electronic fish finder.


But Bush was restless. He didn’t mind telling the reporter of his dread of what lay ahead.

With a final blast of the huge engines and a G-force turn into the dock at Kennebunkport, Bush went to work.

First stop, New Orleans.

Here would occur moments to shape history.

“That idiotic Democratic convention . . . . They thought they were going to kick my brains out and get away with it,” said Bush, recalling his emotions in the month between the July Democratic National Convention and the August convening of the Republicans, who would bestow on him the nomination.

His to-do list in New Orleans had four entires:

To step out of the shadow of Ronald Reagan. To fashion and deliver what would have to be the grandest speech of his life--something with lift and power and meaning in a year that had seen little. To choose a running mate--his first presidential decision. And, after a listless summer of campaigning, to get his operation moving.

The Passing of Power


As campaign reporters think back, few events are so sharp in their memories as that moment on a muggy Tuesday in New Orleans, Aug. 16. Reagan left town, Bush arrived and veteran journalists knew that they had witnessed the passing of power.

Then came the oddest, most unexpected, wildest gamble of Bush’s career. And, for a long while, it looked surely like the worst: Sen. Dan Quayle.

Bush botched the announcement. The former director of the CIA somehow let it leak out, and awkwardly so. It looked like he had muffed the screening process. The campaign simply could not defend Quayle’s fitness for the vice presidency. The controversy engulfed the convention.

Quayle as a Banana Peel

Critics had underestimated Bush during his entire career. This time, it seemed that they might be right. He was error-prone. After a lifetime of being someone’s yes man, he had gone searching for a yes man of his own and found a banana peel instead.

But Bush was not to be distracted, even as his doubters were. He knew that, if he fell off the pace here, he would never catch the Democrats, who were leading handily in the polls.

Some are now saying that the Quayle debacle was not all bad.

“The fact is that the chaos and pandemonium that (Quayle’s selection) created down in New Orleans at the convention served to get expectations for the vice president down lower than we handlers ever could,” said one strategist in retrospect.

Speech Rang Authentic

Bush’s I-am-that-man speech was the greatest of his career.

At a time when a politician’s every utterance is the artificial product of speech writers and poll-takers and marketing teams, Bush’s acceptance address rang authentic. After 20 years in public life, he had disclosed something unexpected about himself. He had displayed a presence compatible with the public’s image of a President.

Bush soon took a lead in the polls that he was never to relinquish.

Peace and prosperity are winning themes.

But Tuesday’s results in House and Senate elections showed that the public is not necessarily content with the GOP status quo.

Certainly, Bush could not have won the presidency if the Administration’s economic or foreign policy was hugely unpopular or unsuccessful. But, just as certainly, Bush and his campaign knew it needed something more.

Looking back, the strategy seems so obvious and simple.

“The brutal fact to us Republicans is there are more Democrats out there,” said campaign manager Atwater.

Election Redefined

The answer meant playing down the standard Republican vs. Democrat divisions and redefining the election along terms more favorable to Bush.

Hence bloomed the contest between conservatives and liberals. When the campaign was stated that way, polls showed, there was a working majority for a conservative candidate.

Quayle would not be a sop to the right. Both he and Bush would hold their ground and shove Dukakis, as the vice president said, “out there where Johnny Bench used to hit them--in far left field.”

Such a strategy capitalized on powerful regional currents of American politics.

Large electoral blocs of the South and West are openly hostile to liberals. Those states often vote Democratic in local races but have become known as the GOP “base” in presidential elections.

Rich Bond, national political director for the campaign, calculated the base at 220 electoral votes--80% of a majority. These are states that almost certainly would vote for a conservative over a Northern liberal and required virtually no campaign effort in 1988.

After this, Bush would make his stand in nine target states--California, Texas, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri and Washington.

By the campaign’s count, Dukakis would have to win seven of the nine to stand a chance. Bush would have to win only three.

In the end, they broke 8 to 1 for Bush.

The fact that Bush spent much of his political career as a moderate meant little in the mathematics of the liberal-vs.-conservative plan for 1988.

Bush had learned how Ronald Reagan won and how Gerald R. Ford lost. This would not be an old-fashioned contest for the ground on the 50-yard line. And neither would it be, as Dukakis hoped, a referendum on competence.

It was, in the end, despite Bush’s daily protests to the contrary, a campaign about labels. Mostly about the liberal label. The L-word.

In virtually every speech, sometimes 10 times a day, Bush reached to shape the thinking of swing voters and to excite the GOP faithful, denouncing “that liberal governor of Massachusetts.”

Dukakis was stigmatized by his own proud title.

It bears underlining that Bush had the great good fortune to draw an opponent willing to permit, or unable to prevent, the vice president from setting the terms of battle.

In their daily closed campaign sessions, Bush’s handlers say, only once did they begin to worry about the unfolding race. That was around Labor Day, when Dukakis briefly sounded a new and stirring populist note.

How to Beat Republicans

“That was the first time I took pause in the whole general election campaign because I felt like, if they went with that message solidly and over and over again . . . that’s how you beat Republicans in a presidential race,” one top Bush brain-truster said.

To the vice president’s great relief, Dukakis inexplicably dropped the theme until the final weeks of the campaign. By then, it was too late.

If Bush’s strategy was constant, the tactics of the race demonstrated vividly the value of the vice president’s experience around this track.

There was little margin for error out on the road, both sides knew that. Week by week, day by day, Bush and his handlers responded with relentless command of the agenda and the news.

Everything from the campaign’s negative tone to its memorable lines was a product of Bush headquarters on 15th Street and McPherson Square in Washington. The high command rarely traveled; that was time-consuming. Experience told them to stay behind to work and think.

Unfortunate Humor

Nothing illustrated their success any sharper than last month’s National Italian-American Foundation Dinner in Washington. Both Bush and Dukakis spoke. The Democratic nominee served up his humor straight from the GOP menu.

“Sorry I was late. The police wouldn’t let me double-park my tank outside,” he said. And to singer Liza Minnelli, who shared the head table, Dukakis remarked, “Liza, that’s the real L-word.”

George Bush had obviously taken control of the very vocabulary of the campaign.

And, if Dukakis from time to time let loose a catchy slogan like “I’m on your side” or “good jobs at good wages,” Bush just stole it.

“You fuzz up his message by using his own language against him,” one Bush worker explained.

The unblinking eye of television had never been kind to Bush. Finally, though, in 1988 he made his peace with it.

Under the coaching of New York media guru Ailes, Bush, the lifelong politician, borrowed a lesson from actor Ronald Reagan and acknowledged the importance of stage presence. He smoothed out his gestures, lowered his voice, attempted to speak more slowly.

He seemed to exaggerate the crookedness of his grin and learned how to tilt his head in Reagan-like aw-shucks fashion. He brought back thumbs-up as a universal greeting.

But, more important, he grew sure-footed along the way. Rather than try to remake him, Ailes encouraged Bush to be himself.

No Verbal Time Bombs

And Ailes went further and predicted that Bush’s tangle-tongue speech patterns would grow on people and become an endearing quality, not a verbal time bomb that would do him in.

So it came to pass that, when Bush misspoke in a speech to the American Legion and called Pearl Harbor Day Sept. 7 instead of Dec. 7, it was merely amusing, not damning. The vice president quickly fashioned it into a crowd-pleasing stump joke about himself.

Bush’s advertising campaign was a successful mix of slickness, schmaltz and attack. It was in the mold now fashionable--hitting hard and hitting early.

In the vernacular of the business, it was an effort to define his opponent before his opponent could define himself.

In this instance, Bush was not such a familiar figure himself. So his advertising had the additional objective of revealing more about George Bush and defining him more sharply for the electorate.

At no time was television so important, though, as those 90 minutes in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Los Angeles.

Live televised debates often turn American elections. But it was not to be in 1988.

Instant scoring of the two encounters: split decision. Dukakis was given the first and Bush the second.

But a standoff was of no help to the man who had to come from behind. Dukakis became the clear loser because he could not win; Bush took it by just persevering.

The final weeks of the campaign were also a story of perseverance.

Quayle was sent packing into the underbrush. Press conferences ceased. The brain trust met and dispatched the candidate on short notice to wherever he could make inroads in the Democratic base.

Lead Seemed in Jeopardy

Bush’s big lead seemed in jeopardy to a surging Dukakis. The Democratic nominee turned populist. Bush held to his worn themes.

Some of the vice president’s advisers fretted. “He’s taking the snap and falling on the ball,” one associate worried.

But Bush refused to be rattled. He was not falling on the ball but back on that old friend, experience.


DUKAKIS BUSH Popular Electoral Popular Electoral State Vote % Vote Vote % Vote Alabama 547,347 40 0 809,663 60 9 Alaska 62,205 38 0 102,381 62 3 Arizona 446,261 39 0 692,139 61 7 Arkansas 344,991 43 0 463,574 57 6 California 4,443,188 48 0 4,752,938 52 47 Colorado 621,093 46 0 727,633 54 8 Connecticut 667,808 48 0 735,791 52 8 Delaware 99,479 43 0 130,581 57 3 D. C. 153,100 86 3 25,732 14 0 Florida 1,624,361 39 0 2,519,778 61 21 Georgia 713,732 40 0 1,068,282 60 12 Hawaii 192,364 55 4 158,625 45 0 Idaho 147,384 37 0 253,461 63 4 Illinois 2,176,793 49 0 2,294,670 51 24 Indiana 849,441 40 0 1,283,405 60 12 Iowa 667,085 55 8 541,540 45 0 Kansas 422,056 43 0 552,659 57 7 Kentucky 578,941 44 0 731,290 56 9 Louisiana 715,612 45 0 880,830 55 10 Maine 240,200 44 0 303,683 56 4 Maryland 793,939 49 0 834,202 51 10 Massachusetts 1,339,561 54 13 1,151,457 46 0 Michigan 1,587,669 47 0 1,821,563 53 20 Minnesota 1,106,240 54 10 957,925 46 0 Mississippi 360,892 40 0 551,745 60 7 Missouri 1,003,973 48 0 1,080,529 52 11 Montana 168,120 47 0 189,598 53 4 Nebraska 254,426 40 0 389,394 60 5 Nevada 132,555 38 0 205,837 60 4 New Hampshire 162,335 37 0 279,770 63 4 New Jersey 1,273,312 43 0 1,703,104 57 16 New Mexico 236,576 48 0 260,990 52 5 New York 3,227,518 52 36 2,974,190 48 0 North Carolina 890,034 42 0 1,232,132 58 13 North Dakota 126,550 43 0 164,622 57 3 Ohio 1,934,922 45 0 2,411,709 55 23 Oklahoma 483,373 42 0 678,244 58 8 Oregon 575,071 53 7 517,731 47 0 Pennsylvania 2,183,928 49 0 2,291,297 51 25 Rhode Island 216,281 56 4 169,571 44 0 South Carolina 3646,752 38 0 600,099 62 8 South Dakota 145,632 47 0 165,516 53 3 Tennessee 676,597 42 0 937,966 58 11 Texas 2,304,442 44 0 2,957,465 56 29 Utah 206,853 33 0 426,858 67 5 Vermont 116,419 49 0 123,166 51 3 Virginia 855,630 40 0 1,297,423 60 12 Washington 844,554 51 10 800,182 49 0 West Virginia 340,676 52 6 309,439 48 0 Wisconsin 1,122,090 52 11 1,043,584 48 0 Wyoming 67,077 39 0 106,814 61 3 Total 40,817,438 46 112 47,662,777 54 426