“Hey, there’s a Perot bumper sticker,” says George W. Bush, peering out the window of the Secret Service’s gray Suburban. It is Memorial Day, and the Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting is returning to Austin after giving a speech at a ceremony in Killeen. “Ross was right,” he reads aloud. “Hmmph. Right about what?”
Earlier, Bush had been reflecting on the program he had just attended on a sweltering afternoon. It had been, he noted, a solemn and uplifting experience, from the playing of taps and the 21-gun salute to the reminiscences of aging veterans and their tributes to fallen comrades. But he was also struck by the frequent references to the great perils that America faces today. “Am I missing something?” said the man who may be our next commander in chief. “Aren’t we safer today than we have ever been?”
I had joined Bush for the ride home because I wanted to ask him about his strategy to win the presidency, a subject I had previously discussed with several of his senior aides. But as so often happens with him, the most intriguing and revealing moments were not his answers to questions but his unrehearsed, regular-guy reactions to unpredictable stimuli such as encountering a Perot supporter. The fault line between Bush fans and foes is most clearly evident in this aspect of his personality; the former see him as ebullient, bantering, and irreverent, while the latter (including his media critics) characterize him as smug, cocky, and arrogant. Even though he has turned his campaign around since losing the New Hampshire primary in February—defeating one formidable rival, John McCain, and seizing the initiative in addressing the nation’s problems from another, Al Gore—Bush’s critics simply won’t be satisfied, and he knows it. He sums up their case against him succinctly: “He doesn’t say anything; he doesn’t stand for anything; he doesn’t know anything.”
So how does he combat the criticism? That’s where strategy comes in. It is no coincidence, for instance, that Bush has issued a series of high-profile policy proposals ever since he wrapped up the GOP nomination in March; his plan was to keep the media busy covering what he wanted them to cover, and so far it has worked. While Bush was behind Gore in a few national polls as recently as early March, he has led the vice president ever since, typically by two to six percentage points. His take on issues ranging from nuclear disarmament to Social Security reform is driv- ing the agenda. The doubts about Bush—foremost among them, whether he has the smarts to be president—have subsided, though he hasn’t heard the last of them; the head-to-head race has hardly begun. Still, as the campaign reaches the end of the post-primary phase and approaches the national party convention season, he could hardly be better positioned.
What comes next? Here is an inside look at how Bush and his top aides plan to win in November.
Hamilton Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio, is not a promising venue for aspiring Republican politicians. The ethnic profile of its students (97 percent African American) and the surrounding inner-city neighborhood (aging frame houses) indicate that this is solid Democratic territory. So why has George W. Bush come to Hamilton on this sticky, stormy afternoon in late May? Because there are votes to be won here—perhaps not those of the hundred or so invited professional educators and parents who are assembled in the school’s cramped, dimly lit gymnasium, but those of people who are not even here. Remember Bob Jones University? The Bush campaign hopes you don’t. Through appearances at places like Hamilton Elementary, Bush’s strategists hope to erase the memory of him at the archconservative South Carolina school back in February, when the Republican nomination hung in the balance, and replace it with an image like this one: He is sitting at a long table, flanked by parents, teachers, volunteers, and school administrators. Draped on the cinderblock wall behind him, obscuring part of a seascape mural, is a navy banner with white letters that spell out one of the mantras of the Bush campaign: “No Child Left Behind.”
Nothing is so important in a presidential race as being viewed as the right person at the right time. That is why events like this one are the key to Bush’s hopes for winning the presidency. Not particularly significant by itself (only a few members of the national press corps are here), the trip to Hamilton represents the Bush campaign’s attempt to have him break through the stereotypes about America’s two political parties and define himself as a new kind of Republican, just as Bill Clinton before him successfully defined himself as a new kind of Democrat.
Bush has not come to unveil any proposals. He will not even make a formal speech. His presence itself is the message, and his audience is the two dozen or so members of the media who’ve come from other cities and towns in Ohio to see him lead a roundtable discussion (or, as he calls it, “a rectangular table discussion”) on reading, a skill at which only 9 percent of Hamilton’s fourth graders are proficient. A stunningly attractive mom wearing a pink sundress tells how she insists that her children read more than they watch TV. A teacher pleads for good nonfiction books. Another teacher wants to know what Bush has done about parental involvement. And on it goes, the candidate participating in the discussion but also taking care to deliver his soundbites: “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” “cultures and societies change one child at a time,” “reading is the new civil right.”
Bush’s appearance here will be reported on the evening news and in the morning dailies all across the state. Tomorrow he will do the same thing in Michigan. If all goes according to plan, the Bush campaign will implant in the minds of voters—event by event, crucial state by crucial state—that he is just as committed to tackling the