By TIM NICKENS
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2000
FLORENCE, S.C. -- At Ebenezer Baptist Church Thursday morning, George W. Bush's conversion appeared complete.
The candidate of the Republican establishment preached as an outsider focused on reform.
Draped behind the Texas governor hung a large blue banner proclaiming, "A Reformer with Results."
"I've got a strong record on education," Bush shouted. "It's a record of reform."
"I've been a tort-reformin' governor," he declared a few minutes later, "and I'll be a tort-reformin' president."
What about a prescription drug benefit for seniors? asked a woman in the crowd of about 800.
"Medicare," Bush replied, "needs to be reformed."
Whether Bush's transformation will bring salvation in Saturday's primary is uncertain.
Opinion polls indicate Bush's battle with Arizona Sen. John McCain, a fight Bush once led by more than 20 percentage points, is a toss-up. Bush needs a clear win here more than anyone dreamed a few weeks ago.
A victory would reassure fundraisers who shattered records by shoveling more than $70-million into his campaign account -- and then watched him spend more than $50-million before the first primary.
It also would prove Bush can do as well in elections as he has in winning endorsements and assembling a national organization.
But most of all, a solid win could enable Bush to reclaim his status as the front-runner and signal to voters that his 19-point loss to McCain in New Hampshire was an aberration.
Lose to McCain Saturday, and Bush finds himself in a tight race he did not anticipate with a former war hero running on character. The next Republican primaries are Tuesday in Arizona, McCain's home state, and Michigan, where McCain is slightly ahead.
Regardless of the South Carolina outcome, the Republican race will be longer and more expensive than anticipated as McCain's rise has ended all talk of a Bush coronation. McCain is now expected to be in the race at least through March 7. Bush even saw fit to reassure reporters Thursday that he is in for the long haul.
"I'm continuing one way or the other," Bush said of the impact of the South Carolina primary.
The high stakes are reflected by the escalating spending and attacks.
Bush has spent more than he anticipated in a state he originally took for granted, a state where Republican primary voters have protected Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and Bush's father from insurgents. Bush has spent more than $3.1-million in TV advertising, including nearly $30,000 to broadcast a 30-minute campaign piece on three different stations.
Both Bush and McCain are accusing each other of negative, inaccurate attacks. Bush held up a McCain flier Thursday that he first raised on a CNN debate two days earlier and complained it is still being distributed. The flier contends Bush's tax cuts would bankrupt Social Security; another McCain piece inaccurately says Bush wants to "nationalize education."
"The senator has got to understand he can't have it both ways," Bush said. "He can't take the high horse and then claim the low road."
McCain responded that the flier did not constitute a negative attack because it told the truth. "The flier is accurate," he said. "It's totally accurate."
Despite his complaints, when Bush changed his approach after losing New Hampshire, he copied one politician's successful techniques: John McCain's.
In South Carolina, Bush held town meetings and took questions from the crowd as McCain did in New Hampshire.
Bush stopped talking about what it means to be a compassionate conservative and labeled himself a reformer, just as McCain has done. He even unveiled his own package on campaign finance reform, McCain's top priority.
And the candidate who has racked up dozens of endorsements from Republican governors and members of Congress calls himself an outsider.
"I'm retooled," Bush said with a smile Thursday. "Politics is a learning process. Whatever lessons I learned by getting knocked down in the snow helped me be a better candidate."
McCain has noticed the new Bush. He joked earlier this week that he wouldn't surprised if Bush soon moved to Arizona.
In South Carolina, Bush leads among Republicans but badly trails McCain among Democrats and independents, who also can vote in the Republican primary. Exit polls in 1996 indicated about one-third of the voters in the Republican primary that year were independents and Democrats, and the overall turnout is expected to be larger Saturday.
Bush's reform message is aimed at picking off some of those voters, though no one can predict how many non-Republicans will go to the polls.
Republicans who turned out to see Bush from Hilton Head to Aiken to Florence and already were supporters said they see the difference in his approach.
"I think George was holding back for an opportune time to put on the table everything he's done in his state," said Harley LeMaster, a Republican who owns a textile business in Florence. "He waited a little bit late."
In South Carolina, Bush talks more about what he has accomplished in Texas. He talks of education reforms that have increased test scores and civil court reforms that he says turned Texas into "entrepreneurial heaven."
"We are recapturing our turf," said Karen Hughes, the campaign's communications director. "This is a turf that has belonged to Gov. Bush since he first ran in 1994."
Sometimes, talk of reform sounds out of place at a Bush event filled with mainstream, contented Republicans.
In Hilton Head, Bush spoke from a large gazebo outside Shelter Cove Harbour. Behind him, sailboats bobbed in the water as prosperous retirees in bright designer sweaters listened politely.
"If you're lookin' for somebody comin' from the outside, with a fresh look and fresh perspective, someone with results as a reformer, give me a chance," said Bush, whose Texas drawl has grown more pronounced since the race has moved south. But the loudest applause came during discussions of tax cuts. Howard Fosman stood up to defend Bush, who has been criticized by McCain for proposing tax cuts that would benefit the wealthy as well as low- and middle-income residents.
"Since when has it become a sin in this country to make money?" asked Fosman, a 66-year-old retiree.
At other events, it is clear Bush's transformation from the programmed front-runner to the free-wheeling reformer is not complete.
In a college gym in Aiken Wednesday night, Bush stood before an American flag that covered the entire wall and was on loan from the local Lincoln-Mercury dealer. The bleachers and gym floor were filled with more than 1,000 listeners who had come to hear Bush, followed by McCain and long-shot Alan Keyes.
The Texas governor switched on automatic, stringing together a 10-minute riff of old sound bites.
"No second-rate dreams . . . usher in the responsibility era . . . government can hand out money but what it cannot do is put hope in our hearts."
He quickly shook a few hands and slid out a side door.