How does it feel to be called a lightweight in front of 270 million people?
“It doesn’t bother me in the least,” says George W. Bush, who at the moment is kicking back in his Gulfstream charter, 41,000 feet in the air somewhere this side of New Hampshire. He has burrowed deep into his leather chair with his boots resting on the opposite seat. His left hand is raised high over his head against the cabin wall, as if frozen in the midst of a campaign salute. One reason he’s untroubled on this particular morning is that a day earlier, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, he survived an hour-long barrage of questions from Tim Russert on Meet the Press.
On the other hand, Bush isn’t the kind of guy who spends a lot of time worrying about anything. You can make a case that this is his best quality as a politician, the underpinning of his upbeat and accessible personality, and you can also make a case—as his GOP rivals are doing—that it is his worst, a carefree air that is incompatible with the serious responsibilities of the office he seeks. In a couple of hours Bush will tell a New England audience that he used to run the Texas Rangers, who “used to get hammered by the Boston Red Sox on a regular basis.” When the audience breaks into applause, he’ll hunch over the microphone as if to share a confidence and add, “That’s called overt pandering.”
Does this sort of exchange—or, more seriously, Bush’s inability to name the leaders of Chechnya, India, and Pakistan in a television interview—mean that he is indeed a lightweight? It’s all the media seem to want to talk about these days, but Bush regards it as just the criticism du jour. “Our strategy will not be undermined by the press corps,” he says. “This is a marathon. They come at you with one thing, then they come at you with another. The first phase of the campaign, they said I was using a Yellow Rose Garden strategy. This summer, it was, ‘He doesn’t say anything specific.’ Then it was bad character. Now it’s this. I intend to stay focused.” Then, as if the last phrase had triggered a hidden circuit, he switched without pause from conversation mode to campaign mode. “I’ve got a steely resolve, a centered agenda. I know how to lead. I think people trust me to restore honesty and integrity to the White House. I have a good sense of humor. I stay calm and steady in the line of fire.”
But the lightweight issue isn’t just a phase. It is the one line of attack that has seemed to stick—if not with the public, then with Jay Leno (“Bush’s lead isn’t in jeopardy as long as he stays off Jeopardy”), Doonesbury, and the cable TV talking heads. His failure to name the foreign leaders was not a big deal with voters because most couldn’t name them either (including Taiwan’s, which Bush got right); it wasn’t nearly as bad as Dan Quayle’s inability to spell “potato.” Bush himself even makes light of the lightweight flap; asked during a press conference about the charge that he is an empty suit, he responded by opening his coat.
The issue stays alive, though, because it is the question that has always been asked about a hereditary leader, which Bush in effect is trying to become. Whether the subject is his entrance into the National Guard or his fitness for the presidency, the questions are the same: Does he achieve things on his own or because of his pedigree?
Considering the scrutiny that he has been under as the front-runner, Bush has arrived at the start of the delegate-selection process remarkably unscathed. The Bush camp regarded 1999 as a year of four preliminary primaries, and so far they have won three. The first was the Leadership Primary, the amassing of endorsements of top Republican officeholders across the nation. Their support was crucial because Bush, as a newcomer to national affairs, needed the backing of a substantial chunk of his party’s governors and senators to bolster his credibility as a candidate. He won this primary overwhelmingly. Of the 31 Republican governors, only 2 have failed to embrace Bush. More than half of the GOP’s 55 senators, 29 at last count, are on board the Bush bandwagon, even though his main opponent for the nomination, John McCain, is their colleague. In the House Bush has the support of 166 of 222 GOP members.
The Money Primary was another blowout. Bush has raised so much—more than $60 million to date—that he has been able to turn down federal matching funds and avoid the arcane spending restrictions that come with them. He has also dried up the well for his competitors, some of whom began dropping out of the race as early as last summer. The only rival who can come close to matching Bush’s bankroll is Steve Forbes, the difference being that Bush is spending other people’s money while Forbes must part with his own.
The Reassurance Primary was less of a sure thing. Bush had to convince voters over the course of the year that he was who they thought he was: a successful governor with a conservative philosophy and good personal values who was capable of running the country. His handlers measured his success by taking monthly averages of where the various candidates stood in the major national polls. In February Bush averaged out as the choice of 42 percent of GOP voters, just 17 points ahead of Elizabeth Dole. In March, when he announced the formation of an exploratory committee, he almost doubled his lead over Dole, to 33 points. In August the cocaine issue knocked his support down slightly, from 59 percent to 57 percent, but his lead was 44 points. In the fall Bush recovered the lost ground and more; he had the backing of more than 60 percent of