President Bush?

He says he hasn’t made up his mind to run. But he acts like a candidate. Can George W. Bush be the next president? Here’s how.

The reception room at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Cincinnati was filled with around three hundred Republicans who had showed up on a hazy afternoon in late May to meet two direct descendants of presidents. One was Bob Taft, the great-grandson of William Howard Taft, who was holding a fundraiser to benefit his campaign for governor of Ohio. The other, the main speaker at the event, was standing in the audience as Taft introduced him from the podium. “No one has done more for education than George W. Bush,” Taft said, and moments later I felt an elbow jab into my side. The elbow belonged to Bush. “Write that down,” he commanded with mock seriousness. Then he went back to glancing at his speech notes, which were scribbled on loose sheets torn from a yellow legal pad. But he looked up again when Taft addressed him: “George, I hope you won’t confine your ambitions to Texas. I hear there is an office in Washington, an Oval Office, that will soon be available.” This time Bush kept his elbows to himself.

Ten days later I sat in Bush’s office at the end of an hour-long interview. “What’s going to be your lead?” he wanted to know. “Probably the Taft comment,” I said. Bush put his hand to his forehead and groaned. “Not that throwaway line,” he said. “You mean we’ve sat here for an hour and that’s the best you can do? I can do better than that. You should say, ‘I looked into George Bush’s eyes and I saw that his head and his heart are in Texas.’ ”

George W. Bush is engaged in one of the most time-honored and delicate rituals of American politics: not-running for president. Not-running is a very different thing from not running. Colin Powell is not-running. Bush is not-running, which is to say that he is walking in the right direction at a pace he hopes will be of his own choosing. The art of not-running requires that he never raise the issue himself but address it whenever someone else raises it, without being coy or closing the door even an inch. In Cincinnati Bush acknowledged Taft’s mention of the Oval Office vacancy in his remarks. “Every time I leave my state,” he said, “it causes speculation about an election that may be way down the road. The most important election for Bob and for me is 1998, and”—now he turned up the volume and intensity—“none of us had better forget it.” Later, at a “media availability” (what used to be called a press conference), most of the questions were about the presidential race: Don’t trips like this stir speculation? How important is your famous surname in your race? What will weigh most heavily in your decision? Would you like to be president? “I don’t know yet,” said Bush.

Politicians like to control events, not to be controlled by them. For Bush, his rocketing popularity is a mixed blessing. His sudden emergence in two recent polls not only as the favorite for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000 but also as a slight favorite to defeat Vice President Al Gore, the likely Democratic nominee, is every politician’s dream. It occurred without his raising his visibility, spending a cent, or doing anything to pump up the numbers. But it also occurred at least six months too soon. It has already overshadowed his bid for reelection in November. It has made it harder for him to not-run for president and has increased the pressure on him to run. It has accelerated the process of media scrutiny; the governor’s office has hundreds of requests for interviews from places as far away as France, Germany, and Australia. Reporters from the New York Times, the Washington Post, and USA Today have already traveled with him. The election is still two and a half years away, and already Bush is living “in the bubble,” as he calls it, without a trace of fondness. Even if the increased attention does not interfere with Bush’s timetable to announce his plans after the 1999 legislative session, it will interfere with his life.

The stakes have been raised now; he is the front-runner. Last year he got away with a big mistake; this year he won’t. The blunder came when he accepted an invitation to be the keynote speaker for a GOP presidential forum in Indianapolis and gave a speech that was panned by the media. Bush had told me afterward that he thought it was a good speech. “I talked about Texas today,” he had said, “and the media wanted America in 2000.” Of course they did. It was a candidate forum. It was the wrong place to not-run for president. If he went, he had to meet the expectation that he would deal with national themes; if he didn’t want to deal with national themes, he shouldn’t have gone. “If you’re afraid to swim,” a Washington consultant told me, “why go to the beach?”

Bush has no choice now; the presidential race has to be part of his calculus. It will affect the invitations he accepts, the interviews he grants, the program he submits to the Legislature, and the themes he develops in his speeches. He must begin to make the transition from a state figure to a national one. Indeed, he has already started to do so. What follows is a blueprint for the way Bush should proceed in order to become president. This is not The Bush Plan; rather, it is a synthesis based on interviews with Bush, his advisers, and Washington consultants, as well as the imperatives of a presidential race. It is by no means a certainty that Bush will run for president. But he has to prepare as though he will.

Step 1: Play the Family Card

"I don't know" Bush said when I asked him why he thought he was leading in the polls. “It mystifies me.” And then a wisecrack: “Maybe it’s because I have

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