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Bush Looked a Sure Thing, But Is He?

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William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst for CNN

You could hear the refrain echoing among Republicans all over the country last week: “Uh, oh. What have we done?”

What they have done is anoint Texas Gov. George W. Bush the GOP presidential nominee. GOP officeholders rushed to endorse him. Fat cats threw money at him. Then they watched him in the debates. Suddenly, they wondered, “Is there less here than meets the eye?”

GOP leaders rushed to support Bush because he looked like a winner. He beat Gov. Ann Richards in Texas. He won a landslide reelection last year, in what was otherwise a bad year for Republicans. Bush is a good brand name now. It connotes character and integrity in the White House.

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Most of all, he’s beating Vice President Al Gore in all the polls.

But what, exactly, does Bush believe? “Compassionate conservatism.” What’s that? It doesn’t matter. What matters is he’s beating Gore in all the polls.

And God knows, the last seven years have been miserable for Republicans. They want their White House back. You mean control of Congress isn’t enough? Nope. That place is run by doofuses like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas). The Republican establishment took one look at Bush’s poll numbers and said, “We got us a meal ticket.”

It’s always risky for a front-runner to show up for a debate. He becomes just one of the guys, unless he can use it to outclass his rivals. As front-runner, Bush had to look like the biggest guy in the room--like Ronald Reagan in 1980 (“I paid for this microphone, Mr. Breen!”). Bush didn’t. Sen. John McCain did.

Bush has the appeal of a fraternity president, which he was at Yale--likable, personable, no great scholar. That has Republican elders worried, for two reasons. First, he has yet to demonstrate the stature and gravitas of a president, particularly a Republican president. In the Dec. 6 debate, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) landed this blow on the Texas governor: “I really believe you need more experience before you become president of the United States. That’s why I’m thinking of you as a vice presidential candidate.” Ouch!

They also worry whether Bush is tough enough. They worried about that with his father, too. Remember the “wimp factor”? But his father had Lee Atwater working for him in 1988.

As a result of the debates, Bush has a challenger breathing down his neck in New Hampshire. Bush is in the same situation Gore was a few weeks ago.

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Gore’s strategy with Bill Bradley has been to get tough and try to discredit Bradley among Democratic partisans. It’s working. Gore has halted Bradley’s momentum. Sure, Gore’s attacks on Bradley are mean and outrageous. But Bradley’s complaining response--”He hit me!”--has made the former basketball star look whiny and ineffectual.

Bush has never run a negative race. Not even in 1994, when he ran against Richards. In 2000, he’s supposed to be the great unifier who can hold the GOP together. But Republicans are getting impatient with this “nice guy” stuff. They want their nominee to show some fight. They see what Gore is doing to Bradley. Bush finally got tough with McCain in the Iowa debate Monday night. McCain challenged Bush to make a commitment to ban soft money if he wins the nomination. “It’s going to hurt the Republican Party,” Bush responded. “I agree with you that we ought not to have corporate soft money and labor soft money. But there had better be ‘paycheck protection’ [to ban labor unions from using members’ dues for political activities]. Otherwise our Republican Party and our conservative values don’t have a shot.”

Sighs of relief were heard in the GOP establishment. Maybe our boy is finally ready to get tough.

But the stature problem won’t go away. Remember the pop quiz Bush flunked? Reporter: “Can you name the president of Chechnya?” Bush: “No. Can you?” Sure, the reporter was playing an absurd game of “gotcha.” Yes, the questions were unfair. Who knows such things?

Nonetheless, damage was done. The quiz raised questions in the public’s mind about Bush’s knowledge and experience. It seemed to support the “lightweight” charge that has plagued him.

Then there’s Bush’s “smirk” problem. Instead of charm, a lot of debate-watchers thought Bush exuded cockiness. It has to do with a certain expression on his face that makes him look arrogant and smart-alecky. A look too often reinforced by dismissive answers.

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People who know Bush say the charge is unfair. He really is charming and likable. Steve Forbes may be charming and likable, too. But Forbes’ robotic manner also turns a lot of people off. Both had better figure out a way to let their real selves show through in public. As Reagan said when asked how an actor could be president, “I don’t know how anybody who wasn’t an actor could do this job.”

Yet another problem emerged for Bush in Monday’s debate: his startling “Christ moment.” When asked to name the “political philosopher or thinker” who had influenced him the most, Bush responded, “Christ, because he changed my heart.” Followed, unfortunately, by the smirk.

What’s that about?

Christian conservatives weren’t sure. Some were impressed. Some were puzzled by his depiction of Christ as a political philosopher. Others wondered whether Bush was pandering to them. Their concern intensified when the questioner asked Bush to elaborate. “If they don’t know, it’s going to be hard to explain,” Bush answered dismissively. “When you turn your heart and your life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as the savior, it changes your heart.” Then another unfortunate smirk.

Many non-Christians felt excluded by Bush’s response. “If Christ is his favorite political philosopher,” they wondered, “what does that mean for us?” Even many Christians are uncomfortable with a candidate who advertises his faith in such a direct way. There is no reason to believe Bush is not sincere in his religious convictions. But why should he bring religion into it? Democratic strategists in Texas believe Bush is trying to combine the “frat boy” and the “born again” into a single, highly marketable image: the hell-raiser saved by prayer.

Later, Bush said he had misunderstood the question. He thought he was being asked, “Who has most influenced your life?” Had Bush listened more carefully, he might have given the correct answer: “My dad. Maybe he’s not a political philosopher, but my dad’s values and convictions have inspired me. He’s my hero.” That would have been charming.

In the latest Gallup poll, Bush still has a solid lead over McCain among GOP voters nationwide, 64% to 18%. The poll went on to ask Republicans, “How would you vote if McCain defeats Bush in some of the early primaries?” The answer? Bush 37%, McCain 34%. Uh oh. Bush’s lead nearly vanishes. He drops almost 30 points.

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Is that true of Democratic front-runner Gore as well? Among Democratic voters nationwide, Gore leads Bradley 54% to 39%. Gallup asked Democrats the same hypothetical question: OK, what if Bradley defeats Gore in some early primaries? How would you vote then? Result? Gore 52%, Bradley 41%. The Democratic numbers stay about the same.

Which means Gore’s lead, while smaller than Bush’s, is more solid. Gore’s lead isn’t based on electability. How could it be? Gore’s been losing to Bush all year.

The poll says something important about Bush’s support in the GOP primaries. A lot of it is based on the perception he’s a winner. If Bush stops looking like a winner--if McCain beats him in early primaries--then his campaign is in danger of collapsing. Gore, on the other hand, has something else going for him--deep loyalty to Clinton among Democrats.

Of the two front-runners, Bush is more vulnerable than Gore. But McCain is a weaker challenger than Bradley. Despite Gore’s efforts to discredit him, Bradley is acceptable to Democrats. Remember, he’s running to the left of Gore. Even Bradley’s pact with McCain to support campaign finance reform doesn’t give Democrats a big problem. Clinton and Gore claim to support campaign-finance reform, too. The problem is, Democrats don’t seem that unhappy with Gore. They see no reason to vote for Bradley. (Here’s one: Gore looks like a loser. But Bradley has yet to make that case.)

McCain is different. He’s anathema to large numbers of Republicans. They don’t think he’s one of them. To GOP leaders, McCain’s key issue, campaign finance reform, is a dagger aimed at their hearts.

Suppose McCain beats Bush decisively in New Hampshire on Feb. 1. Will that be the end of Bush? Not necessarily. It may give Republicans a whole new reason to support him: He can save the party from McCain. That’s why Republicans rallied to Bob Dole after the 1996 New Hampshire primary. They closed ranks behind Dole to save the party from Patrick J. Buchanan.

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So for different reasons, the odds are still good that Bush and Gore will win their parties’ nominations. Democrats will be stuck with Gore, who looks very hard to elect (a third term for Clinton!). Republicans will be stuck with Bush, whose electability problems seem to be mounting with each debate.

What happens when you have two unelectable candidates? That’s easy. One of them gets elected.

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