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We'll soon learn if George W. Bush has what it takes

By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 6, 1999

It was a softball question about presidential politics that U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young of Indian Rocks Beach answered with candor.

Like most Republicans in the House, Young has endorsed Texas Gov. George W. Bush. But he offered an assessment that cut through much of the hyperbole about the son of the former president.

"I've known George Bush for a long time," the House Appropriations Chairman told the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club last week. "His father and I have been very good friends for a long time. I think that George W. Bush has the demeanor. Is he the smartest guy in the world? Probably not. Is he the most logical guy in the world? Probably not. But is he more suited to be president of the United States and deal with the heavy issues we have to deal with? I think so."

That comes closer than anything I've heard to describing the real allure of the Texas governor and the reason so many Republicans and journalists are ready to send the moving vans from Austin to Washington.

Bush has one of the country's best political brand names. He has the good looks. He has the friendly, I'm-a-regular-guy-like-you demeanor, in public at least. He raises mountains of money. He sounds reasonable and safe in an era of extremes.

And that's about all most voters know.

We'll learn more starting this week, when Bush heads to Iowa and New Hampshire for the first time. Presidential campaigns are too long, too expensive and too superficial. But they also test candidates' ability to handle adversity, react to the unexpected and define a compelling vision.

Bush needs to pass that test before he is handed the keys to the White House.

He appears to have been a reasonably successful governor over the past five years, although there will be considerable debate over how the credit should be divided between the Republican governor and Democrats in the state Legislature. Bush claims education reforms and tax cuts are the result of bipartisan cooperation; Democrats say he merely embraced many of their proposals.

"He makes a few broad priority announcements and then takes credit for whatever happens," Ed Martin, the former executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, grumbled during the final days of the legislative session.

On the campaign trail, Bush will be pressed to present his own specific agenda for the nation without any help. He also will find it more difficult to maneuver around hot issues the way he has in Texas.

In Austin, Bush took no public position on a hate crimes bill filed after a black man was dragged to his death behind a pickup truck. The Democrat who sponsored the legislation is convinced it failed because Bush privately told Republicans who previously supported the concept to kill it.

"Either a number of them had severe amnesia or they were getting direction from somewhere," said Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston.

On gun legislation, Bush said he was for instant background checks at gun shows. Yet the legislation died in the Texas Legislature before it was taken up by Congress. He advocated a limited school voucher program. Yet the issue failed as some supporters questioned the governor's efforts to pass it.

On issues beyond the Texas border, Bush also will have to respond faster and with more detail. Republican presidential contender John McCain, the senator from Arizona and former prisoner of war, won praise for promptly arguing that ground troops should not have been ruled out as an option in Kosovo by the Clinton administration. Bush's initial response was too slow and too mushy. His declaration that he "supports winning" was not good enough for a chief executive.

Bush also got into early trouble with conservatives on abortion when he said he supports a constitutional amendment to make abortion illegal but that America is not ready for an amendment. Expect Democrats to press for a definitive answer without qualifications.

The Texas governor did much better with a timely response to the report on China's theft of nuclear secrets. He called China a competitor and not America's "strategic partner" as the Clinton administration likes to say. He suggested that as "we introduce American products into that huge market, we will introduce American values as well."

Bush read a six-paragraph statement that had been worked over by his foreign policy advisers. In the Iowa barns and New Hampshire town halls, he won't have that luxury.

At a post-session news conference carried live by CNN, Bush acknowledged that "the polls and expectations are out of sight." He said he will sell his efforts in Texas to cut taxes and overhaul education to the rest of the country while stressing his ability to work in a bipartisan fashion. But Bush will have to do more than that before the Iowa caucuses early next year.

In Florida, Jeb Bush was the early front-runner in the 1998 governor's race with the name and the money and the political winds behind him. Democrats who waited for him to stumble are still waiting five months into his administration.

We're about to find out if the Florida governor's big brother can pull off the same wire-to-wire victory in a much bigger race.

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