It is easy to see how far George W. Bush has come in the few short weeks since his first presidential forays. Since Tuesday morning, his massive motorcades have streamed across California, moving from ballroom to ballroom of adoring fans and, occasionally, delivering him into the ready embrace of gawking voters.
And sometimes, it is also easy to see how far he has to go.
Take Wednesday morning, when Bush bobbled his way through a question that crystallized the biggest concern about his candidacy: Is he ready to be president?
At a press conference in the auditorium of the Virginia Road Charter Elementary School in mid-city Los Angeles, a questioner noted that Bush always tells his supporters that he is "ready" to be president. And yet a few days back when he confused the names of two countries, Bush had excused himself by saying that the world was big and he would be ready come inauguration day. So, the questioner wondered, is he ready?
Bush joked. He tried to slough off the question.
"It's kind of rhetorical," he half-stammered. "I will be ready. But I feel ready . . . 'I am ready' kind of means I'm ready when I swear in."
He laughed. Then he added, "You caught me."
For Bush, being the front-runner means never having to scratch and beg like all the lesser-knowns farther down the Republican list. It also means that you can stumble from the weight of expectations.
For all the enormity of the Bush juggernaut, with its money and organizational prowess, for all of his winning personality and easy wisecracks, the guy in the center is still feeling his way, trying to navigate the journey from state chief executive to presidential front-runner.
Most of the time, the transition proceeds smoothly. Publicly convivial by nature, Bush glides through his unusually large crowds like someone born to politics--which, as the son of a president and the grandson of a senator, he was. While many politicians seem stilted or uncomfortable, he is all back slaps and self-deprecating quips and wry looks that suggest he does not take all this hullabaloo seriously.
How, came the earnest question on Wednesday, did you manage to raise more than $36 million already, obliterating all fund-raising records?
"A wonderful personality," he snickered drolly.
Does money win elections? another questioner asked.
"No," he countered, "but it's a pretty good start."
Another wondered why actor Warren Beatty, the longtime Democratic activist, showed up at a Tuesday evening reception for Republican Bush in Bel Air.
"I think he's secretly in love with my mother," Bush deadpanned, without missing a beat. And what did he and Beatty say to each other?
"I shook his hand and said 'Hi, I'm George W.' He said, 'I'm Bulworth,' " said Bush, aping the growl Beatty employed in that recent politically-themed movie. Then he laughed. "No! It wasn't a real long conversation."
While that works for lighter fare, joking on more serious topics like his readiness for the presidency could be problematic for Bush, one of the governor's friends warned. So far, he has skated through situations which would have put Dan Quayle in the Leno-Letterman bull's eye--like confusing Slovenia and Slovakia, or calling Greeks "Grecians" and Kosovars "Kosovarians."
"What you're seeing is what he's really like," said the friend, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He's a very personable, very loose, shoot-from-the-hip fellow, and that style has served him very well in his role as governor of Texas. . . . It's refreshing on one hand, and it could get you into trouble in the other."
"He doesn't take himself too seriously. But when you're running for president, leader of the free world, at some point you have to."
So far, much of the Bush campaign is built around the appeal of his personality. His speeches in California and elsewhere generally lack specifics and could have been delivered by any Republican or a carefully moderate Democrat.
When asked, however, he has ventured onto specific turf. Questioned Wednesday about the issues of abortion and guns--he is substantially more conservative than California voters on both subjects--he spoke of recognizing disparate views and moving ahead on areas of agreement. In the case of abortion, he cited banning late-term abortions and giving parents notice if their minor daughters seek abortions.
On education, he advocated annual student achievement tests and an end to social promotion, along with shipping more power back to local school districts. At the Virginia Road school on Wednesday, second-grade teacher JoAn Gregoire was impressed.
"He's outstanding," said Gregoire, who said she has not yet decided who to support in the presidential contest. "He's speaking for the heart and for the mind."
Bush eventually found his sound bite for the readiness question. "Just because I happen to mispronounce the name of a country doesn't mean that I don't understand how to lead," said the governor, who campaigned in Sacramento and San Francisco after leaving Los Angeles on Wednesday morning.
But he also got a none-too-subtle reminder that victory is never a given.
As part of the school program, 10-year-old London Washington offered a dramatic rendition of a lengthy poem she had memorized. Titled "The Race," it told of a boy running the race of his life, hoping to please his watching father, falling and getting up, falling and getting up--and finally finishing dead last.
A few minutes later, Bush, the son aspiring to win the office once held by his father, told little London he appreciated the poem's advice to persevere.
"I'm going to carry the point of 'The Race' with me for the next 16 months," he said a bit ruefully. He hopes, of course, for a different ending.
Times staff writer Carl Ingram in Sacramento contributed to this story.
Hear Times political writer Cathleen Decker discuss Gov. George W. Bush's presidential campaign swing through California on The Times' Web site: http://www.latimes.com/bush
Hear Times political writer Cathleen Decker discuss Gov. George W. Bush's presidential campaign swing through California on The Times' Web site: