ad info

>> allpolitics >> TIME
 guide: gov.,sen.,rep.
 analysis and 'toons

 Headline News Brief
 news quiz
 daily almanac
 video archive
 multimedia showcase
 more services
Subscribe to one of our news e-mail lists.
Enter your address:
Get a free e-mail account

 message boards

CNN Websites
 En Español
 Em Português


Networks image
 more networks

 ad info


Bush bears down

time cover

He's better in debates all over the airwaves, and he's quieted his G.O.P. doubters. But can the front runner go off script?

By James Carney/Portsmouth

January 17, 2000
Web posted at: 11:24 a.m. EST (1624 GMT)

What's the best way to deliver an unpleasant message to George W. Bush? You say little, and let the evidence speak for itself. So, just after Christmas, when the Republican front runner returned to Texas after shaky moments in three debates, he was handed a tape. It had to be to the point because, as Bush told TIME last week aboard his campaign bus, "I'm not gonna watch hours of tapes of myself, and I don't want to rehash all those debates." But this tape was crystalline in its message: it had been carefully edited to exclude all the other candidates, leaving only Bush onscreen with his scripted, repetitive answers and awkward impromptus. The Texas Governor plopped the tape into a VCR, watched it alone at the mansion and got the picture. "I'm a competitor," he told TIME last week. "I want to win. And I'm wise enough to understand that all of us need to improve in life."

Bush knows a thing or two about self-improvement. He did it in business, by turning a mediocre career in oil and gas into a success story in baseball. And he did it again in politics. Having run just once, and lost, in a 1978 House race, he ousted a favored incumbent Governor and then won a thumping re-election four years later. Now he is trying to do it again. After flubbing a reporter's foreign-policy pop quiz in the fall and seeming to be in over his head at those early debates in December, Bush has begun to erase some of the doubts about whether he has the sure-footedness to be a winning presidential candidate.

For one thing, he no longer looks like a sure loser in New Hampshire. Some polls last week even showed him with a narrow lead over his rival, Senator John McCain. "Before Christmas, the Bush campaign was in a lot of trouble," says New Hampshire pollster Dick Bennett. "But they made some changes. The slide has stopped." And that is in New Hampshire, where McCain has campaigned almost nonstop for months. (To lower expectations, Bush aides are predicting that they might lose New Hampshire, even as they work flat out to win it.) In Iowa, where McCain is not participating, Bush has maintained a solid margin over publishing tycoon Steve Forbes in the final week before the Jan. 24 caucuses. And the outlook is even rosier nationally, where a new TIME/CNN poll shows Bush trouncing McCain among Republicans by 45 points.

On the campaign trail and in a series of recent debates, Bush has begun, slowly, to find his voice. He doesn't wait patiently for his turn to answer questions but jumps in to defend himself when one of his opponents attacks. And he is no longer too cautious to take a verbal swing at a rival, as he has proved of late by gleefully maligning McCain's economic plan of modest tax cuts and debt reduction as something only a liberal like Al Gore could love. Aides have also backed off. Rather than grilling Bush right up until air time before debates and sending him out on stage rattled, handlers have allowed the Governor plenty of time to rest beforehand. All in all, the result has been a more confident, relaxed candidate. "A lot of politics, and of running for President, is getting used to the process," Bush said in explaining his change in style. "Man, it's new to me. And I'm getting used to it."

There is more to the change than that. Faced with a stiffer challenge than they expected from McCain, political director Karl Rove and the rest of Bush's brain trust came together late last month and decided to shift their strategy for the primaries. Getting Bush to loosen up in the debates was part of it. Saturating New Hampshire with new 30-sec. ads, to the point where Bush is outspending McCain in the Granite State air war more than 3 to 1, was another. But the most critical element was the decision to simplify Bush's message. Instead of waxing lyrical about "compassionate conservatism" and running through a checklist of memorized policy positions every time he speaks, Bush has tried to hone down his message as much as possible to just two issues: tax cuts and education. By showing off his education-policy expertise, Bush hopes to lock in the advantage he has built over McCain with women voters. And by touting his plan to slash $483 billion in taxes over just five years, he believes he can solidify his support among traditional Republicans, especially those in tax-allergic New Hampshire, where Primary Day is just two weeks away. "There's a limited number of notes we can strike in the last few weeks of this campaign," says a top Bush adviser, "and tax cuts and education are the two we're gonna strike."

On tax cuts at least, McCain is striking back. Over the past two weeks, McCain has repeatedly accused Bush of proposing risky tax breaks for the rich. Bush has fired back, labeling McCain a timid creature of Washington who would rather see Congress spend the budget surpluses than give taxpayers a break. At a debate in Durham, N.H., Bush resurrected his father's broken promise of "no new taxes" and went him one better, pledging that as President he will deliver "tax cuts, so help me God." By casting himself as a supply-side, tax-cutting heir to Ronald Reagan, the Governor is placing his faith in the idea that Republican voters are still clamoring for tax cuts, even in this period of sustained prosperity. "Our current President has done a good job saying you can't have tax cuts without jeopardizing Social Security," Bush told 350 New Hampshire residents gathered for a lunch of baked scrod at the Portsmouth Rotary Club. "I disagree. I've seen the numbers. There's gonna be money left over."

In keeping with his maverick style, McCain is betting Bush is wrong about his own party. In McCain's economic plan, the details of which were released only last week, he calls for a tax cut roughly half the size of Bush's, with the rest of the budget surplus used to shore up Social Security and Medicare and to pay down the nation's $5 trillion debt. That's because McCain believes that the rank-and-file of his party now care more about being fiscally conservative and protecting entitlement programs than they do about getting big tax cuts. And McCain thinks he's found a big Bush weakness on the issue. "When you run ads saying you're going to take care of Social Security, my friend," McCain told Bush at Saturday's debate, "that's all hat and no cattle."

McCain is right when he charges that the wealthy would reap big rewards under Bush's plan. Outside analysts predict that more than a third of the benefits from Bush's cuts would flow to Americans earning more than $300,000. But Bush is right too when he argues that lower- and middle-income Americans would see their taxes reduced more, in percentage terms, than the very rich. A single mother of two earning $31,300 a year would see her income-tax bill disappear. The benefits of McCain's plan are focused almost entirely on the middle class--single people and couples earning between $25,000 and $70,000. For everyone else, the poor and the rich, the payoff is modest.

Bush and his advisers think McCain's strategy on tax cuts is a mistake big enough to cost the upstart challenger his chance to win New Hampshire. "You can't run to the left on taxes in this state and win the Republican primary," says New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg, Bush's state chairman. Gregg may be right about his home state but wrong about the rest of the country. In the TIME/CNN poll, Republicans by more than 2 to 1 say they would rather have a smaller tax cut with more money going to Social Security and debt repayment than a larger tax cut that left less money for those two priorities. The results are similar to ones pollster Bill McInturf found when he tested the mood of G.O.P. voters in surveys commissioned by the Republican National Committee in 1998. The RNC filed away the surveys, and McInturf now works for McCain.

Win or lose in New Hampshire, Bush's biggest long-term asset against McCain is his ability to rally the armies of the Republican establishment to his cause. As the front runner began to falter last fall, the donors, officeholders and interest-group activists who make up the G.O.P. elite began plotting ways to prop him up. In Washington, according to several top Bush supporters, word went out that any defections to McCain would be treated as a betrayal of the party's best interests. "There was a clear understanding that you don't screw around with the primal forces of nature," explains one of Bush's top K Street backers in Washington. "We've all invested in this guy, mentally, physically and financially. We want to win in November, and Bush is our best chance."

In recent weeks, pro-Republican interest groups based in Washington, such as Americans for Tax Reform and the National Right to Life Committee, have aired television and radio ads in New Hampshire criticizing McCain for his stands on campaign-finance reform and other issues. McCain has accused Bush of having surrogates do his dirty work--a charge the Bush campaign has shrugged off as ridiculous. And in New York, where Bush has the support of Governor George Pataki and most of the state G.O.P., McCain is suing over the procedural hurdles he faces trying to get on the ballot for the March primary. "I am Luke Skywalker headed out from the Death Star," McCain told reporters last week. "I see the opening, and I see all the things being fired at us and the explosions all around us."

But if Bush has all the artillery, he has yet to show he can consistently handle the incoming fire of the campaign trail. When he is faced with issues that fall outside the Bush Campaign Message--like when voters at two back-to-back meetings in New Hampshire last week stood up to ask him about health care--he can still sound scripted, or just bored. And when the issues are hot, he can be evasive. On a number of recent controversies--whether the Confederate flag should fly over the South Carolina capitol, what to do about the racial profiling of black motorists, whether to let McCain on the New York ballot--the candidate argues that it is up to the states to decide. But on subjects less touchy for Republicans, Bush has been willing to criticize a Cleveland judge's decision on vouchers, an assisted suicide initiative in Oregon and an anti-gay initiative in California.

By week's end Bush had found a way to put his best assets on display. Barbara Bush, the venerated former First Lady, turned up in New Hampshire, and was followed a few days later by George W.'s brother Jeb, Governor of Florida. Bush's father, the former President, flew to Iowa to promise Republicans there that George W. "would be excellent at doing what I tried to do." As his campaign bus chugged down a snowy highway in New Hampshire last week, Bush recalled how, in 1988, he went up to his father to relay advice from some close supporters. "What is it?" the elder Bush asked. "Just be yourself," the son answered. As he told the story, the candidate rolled his eyes, as if to say he had heard enough of that himself lately.

--With reporting by John F. Dickerson, with McCain


Cover Date: January 24, 2000

Search CNN/AllPolitics
          Enter keyword(s)       go    help

© 2000 Cable News Network, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.
Who we are.