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It's time for George W. to toss the script and talk to us

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 6, 2000


In more than seven months of campaigning, George W. Bush has proven he can deliver a speech.

The problem is it is always the same one. The Texas governor is so programmed he sounds like a child's toy. Pull the string, and he repeats the same tired lines.

Consider these two snapshots.

On June 12, the Texas governor's opening campaign trip, "the Great Expectations Tour," pulled up in the green corn fields outside Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Bush, wearing cowboy boots and a belt with a big silver buckle, delivered his first major speech in a large metal barn filled with several hundred listeners. Hay bales circled the podium, and farm machinery was parked outside the open door behind him. His delivery that Saturday afternoon was confident and flawless.

The second picture is from a week ago today, Jan. 30. With snow piled outside, Bush stood in front of several hundred listeners jammed into a high-school cafeteria in Hudson, N.H., on the Sunday before the Republican primary. He took off the blue jacket with his name stitched on the chest and joked, "I'm getting wound up now."

The passion was genuine, but there was not a single original thought.

Not on the impact of economic prosperity and how it can be used.

June 12, Cedar Rapids, Iowa: "The purpose of prosperity is to make sure the American dream touches every willing heart."

Jan. 30, Hudson, N.H.: "I'm running to make sure the American dream touches every willing heart."

Not on the role of government and the soaring economy.

June 12: "Prosperity alone is simple materialism."

Jan. 30: "Prosperity alone is simple materialism."

June 12: "Governments don't create wealth."

Jan. 30: "The role of government is not to create wealth."

Not on the importance of free trade.

June 12: "The fearful build walls. The confident demolish them."

Jan. 30: "Fearful people build walls around America, and confident people tear them down."

Not on foreign policy.

June 12: "A dangerous world still requires a sharpened sword."

Jan. 30:" A dangerous world requires a sharpened sword."

Not on education.

June 12: "Failed schools are creating two societies: one that reads and one that can't; one that dreams and one that doesn't."

Jan. 30: "Failed schools in America create two societies: one that reads and one that doesn't; one that dreams and one that doesn't."

Not even on his approach to leadership.

June 12: "I've learned you cannot lead by dividing people."

Jan. 30: "I've been a uniter, not a divider."

As the race moves to South Carolina with new polls showing Arizona Sen. John McCain now tied with Bush, the Texas governor has proven he can stick to the script. He has not demonstrated he can think on his feet.

His performances in debates range from poor to average. His answers to questions in news conferences and on network news shows drift from sarcastic to stiff.

At a news conference in Iowa shortly before the caucuses last month, Bush was pressed to answer questions about abortion and nominations to Supreme Court. Other than repeatedly vowing to appoint "strict constructionists," he could not articulately respond.

It was painful to watch.

After losing badly to McCain Tuesday night in New Hampshire, Bush delivered a short statement to reporters filled with stale lines.

"It seemed like a series of one-sentence cliches, and he had to go to his notes to read them," said Merle Black, an Emory University political science professor. "It was terrible. If that is his style, it is not going to work."

In person, Bush has an engaging personality. He looks people in the eye. He winks and nods. He connects.

On television, the raised eyebrow and half-grins don't come across that way. The Manchester Union Leader called him "Governor Smirk."

One of the lessons from New Hampshire is that Bush has to become more like McCain. He needs to loosen up. He needs to walk into unscripted situations and handle questions from voters and reporters. Even if Bush says something that gets him into hot water, it is a risk that has to be taken if he wants to recover.

In a television interview in New Hampshire shortly before the primary, Bush was asked what misconception frustrates him the most. "Probably that I don't know anything," he answered.

Even with his family name, Bush did not get this far without knowing something. It's time to prove it and abandon the stall tactics of a comfortable front-runner.

It may be hard to change strategies.

Bush was elected governor in 1994 by talking about the same handful of issues over and over. It is the same strategy his brother, Jeb, used in 1998 to win the governorship in Florida.

But memorizing the lines of a 7-month-old speech and repeating them at every stop is not going to win anyone the presidency.

Even if his last name is Bush.

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