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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Who chose George?

It took luck, hard work and a brand name for Governor Bush of Texas to become the front runner. Now the question is, Can he make it to the White House?

By Michael Duffy and Nancy Gibbs

June 14, 1999
Web posted at: 11:59 a.m. EDT (1559 GMT)

TIME magazine

At times over the past three years it has been hard to know which story to believe about George W. Bush--the one about the pretender who was plotting to seize the throne, or the one about the reluctant son of the noble family who wasn't even sure whether he wanted to be King. This week, as he roars out of Texas with so much money and momentum behind him that people can't agree on whether this is the campaign's beginning or its end, the best way to grasp what has happened may be to imagine that both stories are true.

The plotting began, so quietly, not long after the last presidential campaign ended, if not always by Bush himself, then by those close to him. When the subject came up with their 5,000 closest friends, his parents suggested, ever so graciously, that they might not want to invest in any other candidates until they saw what young George was going to do. Michigan Governor John Engler, meanwhile, was recruiting a mighty power base among the nation's G.O.P. Governors, the only Republicans who got away with their shirts after the 1998 elections. From his nest down in Austin, campaign guru Karl Rove lured moneymen and operatives from every important state into a Virtual Smoke-Filled Room built out of calls and faxes and 300 e-mails a day. And all the while, Prince George stayed home, breaking all the rules of politics and inventing his own. He went nowhere near Iowa or New Hampshire, gave few big speeches, held no fund raisers, cruised to a crushing re-election victory in Texas and pulled in more than $7 million just in the month after he announced he might run.

But by the time the party had fallen at his feet with the nomination on a velvet cushion, he had to launch a whole other campaign, more private, but just as important. Of the thousands of conversations he was having, the most interesting was the one he was having with himself. Bush is the son of a man who ran four times. He knows what it means to hang up your life in the closet and pack your heart and health and conscience into a carry-on bag, and then set out for the airport and never look back. It wouldn't be much fun. He wasn't sure he was ready. And he wasn't sure the time was right.

Funny thing about timing, though. It turns out that this may be the perfect time for a candidate with doubts. People like him without knowing much about him because he doesn't seem to want it too much. What could be more appealing, coming after a President who started running before he could walk and seemed willing to sacrifice anyone to win and hold onto the White House? And how better to reach out to voters who think the system is rotten but are too detached even to be disgusted anymore? Bush's wife Laura has the campaign slogan for the Age of Indifference: "You know, it doesn't matter," she told TIME. "If he wins, it'll be great. If he doesn't, we still have a life."

In a TIME/CNN poll last week, 62% of those surveyed had a favorable impression of him, even as 73% admitted they needed to know more. And so this rollout is all about making introductions. If they get this right, Bush aides whisper, the G.O.P. nomination might be all wrapped up in the next three weeks. That is a breathtaking admission of a breathtaking strategy: raise so much money, lock down so many endorsements that the spotlight follows you everywhere, your opponents freeze to death in your shadow and, best of all, you cruise straight past the primaries and into the general election as "a uniter, not a divider," with none of the debts and scars and promises that slow candidates down just at the point when the campaign becomes a sprint. The Republican faithful would forgo their normal feedings of litmus tests and put up with this soggy message of "compassionate conservatism" because Bush has a message for them too. Three words: I can win. Now he just has to prove it will work.

"I never dreamt about being president," Bush told TIME. "It hasn't been part of my life's game plan. All of a sudden, people start talking to me about the presidency..."

The Bush team loves to recall the moment in the summer of 1997 when Karen Hughes, Bush's communications whiz, walked into the Governor's office with a poll showing him suddenly ahead of all the other Republican contenders. "You've got to be kidding me," Bush said, a reply conveniently retailed to reporters since. The polls were a bit fluky: a Republican working for Bush conceded that some 40% of those who picked Bush in the early days thought they were voting to bring back the Old Man, not Junior. But that was also the summer when the giants started to fall and the party cracked wide open: Jack Kemp and Colin Powell weren't in the game, Newt Gingrich was nearly toppled in a coup attempt in the House, and the other candidates seemed to have been running since the dawn of time without getting anywhere. "There was this vacuum," says a Republican strategist, "and it became like space. It was huge."

Ever since that time, the Bush team has insisted that what happened was more good luck than hard work, that the party came to him. "This is the closest thing the party has ever had to a genuine draft," Rove told TIME. Added Hughes: "We returned a lot more phone calls than we made." All true: Bush may not be quick to create opportunities, but he is quick not to miss them. "Nothing in politics just happens," says veteran consultant Scott Reed. "What they have done is nothing short of awesome."

They began with a happy coincidence. The whole thing would be over before it began if Bush didn't get re-elected Governor of Texas, a state with a history of tossing Governors overboard after one term. Staying focused at home would also keep him out of the fray that was chewing up other politicians. And since the Texas Governor doesn't have much power, he had no choice but to build a big coalition, work with the Democrats and generally conduct himself in a way that offered a perfect contrast to the eye gouging going on in Washington. Together Bush and his coalition would pass the biggest tax cut in the state's history, reform its tort-liability system and boost reading scores enough to give him bragging rights on a national scale.

But if Bush stayed home and didn't open the door, he didn't slam it either. He left it ajar and started flirting. The G.O.P. moneymen are a skittish lot: they love a winner, hate being left behind, and once a bunch start to go, the rest tend to follow. This time around, there was so much hunger for a winner that Bush could actually hope to do something no one had ever managed before: sweep the money primary, the first big test of whom the insiders like, and pretty much coast through the ones that involve actual voters. The other candidates, still hoping that a surprise breakout in Iowa or New Hampshire would win them enough attention to make up for all the ads they couldn't afford to buy, weren't counting on Bush's sucking all the oxygen out of the race before it even starts.

Bush had a giant basket of names to start with--from Texas, from his father, from his work in Major League Baseball, from Yale, Harvard and Andover. He and Rove appealed to the old hands in a new way: he actually asked for their opinions before he asked for their money. He questioned them about the political landscape, about the other candidates' strengths and weaknesses, about policy--the kind of intellectual stroking that fund raisers don't normally get. And Bush's team set out to pull in a whole new cadre, people who hadn't been interested in politics before because it was an old man's game, who had watched the Democrats anoint the baby boomers in 1992 while the G.O.P. grayheads fumbled. As Bush told a fund raiser in the fall of 1997, "If I do something, I'd like to have my friends who have some campaign experience around me. It's not going to look backward. I don't want people who are cynical and scarred from my father's time."

By fall, Rove was in steady contact with operatives in key states, asking veterans whom to call, whom to meet, how to make approaches and what they were hearing. His line to them was the same: "Keep your powder dry." It was too early to ask for a commitment, but with those four words, the Bush team froze dozens of fund raisers and organizers in place so no other candidate could win them over. Robert Bennett, the Ohio party chairman, recalls the early feelers from Rove that summer. "They weren't ruling it in; they weren't ruling it out. But they were leaving the definite impression that they were--how shall I say this--heading for a presidential effort."

That first year, Bush made only one mistake: he gave a flat speech in Indianapolis, Ind., at a party event designed to showcase the contenders. But even this tiny stumble turned out for the best. Bush had a reason to avoid beauty contests for the next two years and a handy reference for lowering expectations. He remained extremely disciplined in interviews, telling the stories about how he didn't want to grow up to be President, he wanted to be Willie Mays, keeping his famous temper in check, turning the other cheek.

Before long, the 2000 question dogged Bush everywhere he went. "He'd get on an elevator," says Hughes, "and people would say, 'I hope I can call you President someday, Governor.' Every week there would be another poll. And Danish TV would turn up in Beaumont. It just built and built." The buzz became a distraction, so Bush called a press conference in October to explain, in a parse-this-if-you-dare statement, that he had not made up his mind. Said Bush: "It is not in the best interests of Texas for me to say right now that I will not run for President."

After the moneymen, the next constituency to woo were the heavyweights who really control the Republican Party these days--the Governors, with their early-warning systems and their fund-raising networks and their serene distance from the party in Congress. One of the first to sign on was Montana's Marc Racicot, who had called in September 1997 out of the blue and told Bush that if he runs, "I'll be there." You're early, the Governor replied then, given the fact that he hadn't even announced whether he was running again for Governor. "Well," Racicot replied, "I'm from the West, and I know a good horse when I see one."

Before 1998, the Republican Governors had never coalesced as a power base, partly because there had never been such a critical mass, 32 of them in all. In contrast to the sinking Congress, the Governors were emerging as stars, centrist and practical CEOs who were busy fixing welfare and improving schools and cutting taxes while Gingrich fiddled. And they came to the table bearing gifts: their organizations, their financial backers and their endorsements. Unlike Clinton, Bush had never been a big mover among the other Governors, never an intellectual force or a policy genius. But they all knew him, many liked him, and most could see he had a priceless brand name.

At the center of the recruitment effort was Michigan's Engler, a two-term Governor who had spent much of the 1990s turning the Republican Governors Association from a paper tiger into an organization that could raise $20 million in a single cycle. During 1998, Engler was the Republican who worried most about how the G.O.P. of Gingrich and Trent Lott had grown too detached from Americans' lives. "A lot of us decided he was the best candidate," Engler told TIME last week. "We wanted to be able to work with someone early on." Though careful to be discreet, Engler privately began to lobby his colleagues on the phone or in meetings, one at a time, sounding them out with an invitation and a warning, similar to what the fund raisers were hearing: Don't wait too long; when the train is leaving the station, you don't want to be the last to climb on board. "I think George looks strong," he'd say to his colleagues. "What do you think?"

And he wasn't always so subtle. At one RGA meeting Engler gathered his colleagues around a table and said, "I think it's got to be someone out of Washington. The only way we take the presidency back is if it's someone from this table." As a participant put it later, "We all knew he wasn't talking about Bill Janklow of South Dakota."

Bush matched this effort by appearing as a guest star at carefully chosen fund raisers in key states. It was an old-fashioned way to do favors--and broaden his financial network. He and his father campaigned for Jim Gilmore in Virginia in 1997; the $500,000 take stunned even Gilmore's aides. There was a growing curiosity about this popular Governor with the big halo; organizers and activists and consultants wanted to see for themselves whether he had the right moves. In May 1998 he went to Ohio fund raisers for gubernatorial candidate Bob Taft and helped raise $700,000. "Bush was a huge draw," said Brian Hicks, who ran Taft's campaign. "People who would normally write a check but not attend the event attended the event. And those who normally do both but don't care about pictures got a picture."

In these early, intimate meetings, people wanted to see if he was one of them. Was he truly a conservative or a moderate, a Christian, a tax cutter, a libertarian? What breed of Republican was this guy? Bush seemed to have found a universal language. Warren Tompkins, a veteran G.O.P. operative in South Carolina, watched Bush come into the Palmetto State last year to raise money for Governor David Beasley. Tompkins recalled how people from both left and right remarked afterward, "This guy is talking to me." "Shoot," said Tompkins later, "that's when I thought this thing is gonna be real."

The hunger for a winner was about the eternal appetite for access and power, but there may have been something else at work as well among Republicans who had come to view Clinton's presidency as fundamentally illegitimate. It was not just that the Republicans had all but owned the White House for years. It was that Clinton had won by stealing their issues and then selling them better than they had, had not honored the office, and it was time to get it back.

Nowhere did the zeal for a winner work to Bush's advantage as in California, a state where the G.O.P. has factions inside factions. In April 1998, Bush went West to campaign for gubernatorial hopeful Dan Lungren in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Silicon Valley. At one event, about a dozen of Lungren's biggest backers practically cornered Bush during a private conversation and pressed him to run. Bush demurred, in deference to Governor Pete Wilson, who was still considering another run at the nomination. But he winked. "I want to be your second choice," Bush told them, tipping his hand.

The deep wallets all dove in, not just Wilson guys but Lungren backers and old Reaganites and factions that usually try to have nothing to do with one another. Bush refused to rank them, stack the chairmen atop the vice chairmen; instead he made them all "pioneers," committed to raising $100,000 each for his campaign. "He did to California what Tito did to Yugoslavia," said Wayne Berman, a top G.O.P. fund raiser in Washington. "He pulled all the factions together and said it is better to live together than die alone."

Bush and his people talk about currents too powerful for any one politician, however canny, to shape. "A lot of this you just can't control," Bush told TIME. "Like generational change. Like incumbency. Like the tides of history." The tides of history, in 1998, could not have been more helpful if he had aligned the moons and planets himself. A popular Democratic Administration was drowning in scandal. The Republican Party in Washington was obsessed, adrift and seemingly intent on proving to voters that it had no clue about what was actually on their minds. And all the while Bush was waltzing to re-election in Texas against a Democratic opponent so hapless that the Democratic lieutenant governor endorsed Bush instead. Bush remarked to his father during the summer that the trickiest part of the job was keeping expectations under control.

But after Nov. 3, there was no controlling much of anything anymore. While Republicans around the country were wiped off the map in key states like California, Bush won his second term with nearly 70% of the vote, including 65% of women, 49% of Hispanics and 27% of blacks. The most divisive Republicans were the ones who went down in flames. Bush had heads snapping with the breadth of his support. And, by the way, his brother Jeb was now the Governor of Florida.

From that moment, among Republicans, the sheer hunger for victory swamped all distinctions of rank, ideology and geography. Corporate chieftains were calling down to Austin, wanting to come visit. Petitions began appearing from state legislators, some orchestrated by Austin, some not, calling on Bush to run or signaling their support if he did. Silicon Valley executives starting taking out ads in newspapers pumping his candidacy. The checks came in unsolicited at state party headquarters, to Republican consultants, to old friends of the Bush family.

At this point it became impossible to separate what the Bush team was doing to fan the flames and the sheer heat of the inferno. Yet the striking thing about this moment, after so many months of quietly working the bellows, is that it seems to have singed even Bush himself. The more it grew and burned out of his control, the less it looked as if he'd have any choice of walking away. Even if the expressions of reluctance had been designed to signal his distance from the process, the doubts now took on a life of their own. Yet each statement of uncertainty only tended to cement his position as far as everyone else was concerned. "The more he said it," said a G.O.P. consultant, "the more he doth protest [too much]. But the more attractive he became."

Bush was caught in what a longtime friend called a "heart and head" problem. His head was in the race, but his heart wasn't. Within his inner circle, especially the tight-knit, politically hard-wired Bush family, the debate cut right to the bone. His mother told an audience that if he didn't run, she'd kill him. But his brother Marvin, who has never cared for the political maelstrom, thought he'd be crazy to do it. Sometime last summer, Bush had explained to his brother that he was leaning toward a run, but he had not made up his mind. "I'm not there yet," was the quote that made the rounds in the family. Some concerns were almost biblical, the cycles of fat and lean years. Did he really want to be the one who presides over the next Bush recession, given how his father had suffered in contrast to eight years of the Reagan expansion?

And then there were the people who mattered most: Bush was not keen about subjecting his teenage daughters to the scrutiny that he and his siblings had endured in the 1970s and '80s. When he sat down with daughters Barbara and Jenna to talk about running, it was as though Chelsea Clinton was right there in the room. Would there be tabloid stories about every boyfriend, every rock concert, not to mention the Secret Service agents in the college dorm? Bush's wife Laura, a funny, private woman, was pretty blunt too. They already had a wonderful life, more than they could have imagined. Did they really want to have to ride a motorcade to go to the grocery store?

But the doubts weren't just about his daughters or his wife but about himself as well. He wasn't sure he was ready. No one admits to that publicly, but Bush came close. He has told audiences proudly that he doesn't need a poll or a focus group to know what he believes. But he also knew what he didn't know. With so much catching up to do, so much risk if he kept talking publicly about "Grecians" and "Kosovians," Bush imported the best brains in his party for a crash course on how to sound like a President.

Even some of his allies among the Governors caught a glimpse of the conflict, the flattery and fear of the whole thing. After the election, Bush went to Israel for a week with three other Governors--Racicot of Montana, Mike Leavitt of Utah and Paul Cellucci of Massachusetts. Racicot watched as crowds all over Israel and the West Bank immediately recognized Bush. They called his name as he walked by, gathered when he spoke. But Racicot could also see that the pressure on Bush to run was becoming a burden, something he was not ready to embrace. Leavitt remarked that all through the trip, Bush saw his "destiny" flash before him.

Ask anyone close to him about the moment Bush finally made peace with running, and it is uncanny how they all paint the same picture. It came in January, when he was sitting in a private prayer service before his inaugural, just friends and family. Pastor Mark Craig started preaching about duty, about how Moses tried to resist God's call, and the sacrifice that leadership requires. And as they sat there, Barbara Bush leaned over to the son who has always been most like her and said, "He's talking to you, George."

The story is so perfect, God's calling him to lead a broken people, it is like candy for the skeptics who believe that every moment of this extraordinary ascent has been spun and scripted down to the last amen. It has something for everyone: it works for the family, for the Christians, for the Texans, the independents and moderates who don't want someone who feels he just deserves this by birthright. It works for those who believe this is all about revenge, with mom sitting there in her triple strand of pearls urging her son on. It also might have the virtue of being true.

From that point on, say the Governor's allies, he threw his back into the race. Within the Bush camp, the dominant conversation ever since has been how to manage these expectations--with the answer that if you keep talking about how high they are, it will seem too conventional for reporters to write about how he failed to meet them, and so maybe, just maybe, the news cycle will smile on them and the counterintuitive story of the debut will be that Bush actually lived up to them. How else to explain the name of the plane that ferried Bush to Iowa last weekend: Great Expectations?

"I take nothing for granted," Bush said in a rough-and-ready maiden speech on Saturday. "I'm running, and I'm running hard. I'm taking my front-porch campaign to every front porch in this state." Standing between bales of hay and farm tractors, Bush drew only broad strokes for reduced taxes and regulation, free trade, a strong military and an aggressive approach to education. He made official the mantra of his run. "I'm proud to be a compassionate conservative. I welcome the label and, on this ground, I will make my stand."

This summer, Bush aides say, is all about introducing the candidate and letting folks get a sense of his heart. Come the fall, when people might start paying attention to politics, there will be plenty of time for him to lay out a 10-point plan on fixing Social Security. Some of Bush's opponents have made their annoyance at all this tiptoeing plain. "People don't know what he stands for," said Dan Quayle in Iowa last week, wondering how Junior swiped his crown. "He's got to come in and fight for this nomination. I'll be darned if we're going to have this nomination inherited by a particular candidate."

Bush loyalists have a ready answer for that charge. The old days of the smoke-filled rooms, says an aide, produced better candidates than the current primary process that has seen Lamar Alexander campaign nonstop for six years. "The genius of the old system was that people with the interests of the party at heart made decisions," the Bush aide argues. "They knew the guys' characters: He's got it, he doesn't. He's clean, he's a slimeball. Clinton wouldn't have got very far under that system."

Of course, the old smoke-filled rooms were filthy places, for cutting deals and making threats and trading bribes, and the old bosses were not always weighing the merits when they christened their candidates. It is hard to watch the Bush anointment and not be shocked by the sheer, almost undemocratic nerve of it, and the risk that this could all blow up and leave the party with a choice among broken and, other than Steve Forbes, penniless understudies. "No matter how much support you get from insiders, activists, fund raisers, you still gotta run the gauntlet," says longtime Republican strategist Charles Black. "You gotta earn it at the polls. That's the beauty of the system. You won't know until February how he's gonna do."

And so the curtain goes up on a race that may just be beginning, or may already be in its last act. "If he does well, it's his. If he doesn't, he could fall so fast. You could have him on the cover in June--and never hear from him again," says Steve Merksamer, a top California strategist who is working for Forbes. "You wonder if they are building a schoolhouse here out of straw. It's big and shiny, built in 90 days, but the contractor put it together in a way that when the first stiff wind comes, the house blows down." For Bush supporters, that's their greatest fear. For his opponents, that's their strongest hope.


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: June 21, 1999

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