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 GOP voters—and he had wrapped up the Reassurance Primary.

The Substance Primary, the clash of candidates over ideology and policy, is the only one whose outcome is not yet clear. In the past this has typically boiled down to a contest between a bedrock conservative and an establishment figure, with the conservative winning the Substance Primary and the nomination. At the Iowa straw poll in August, in which Bush finished first and Forbes came in second, the latter’s forces were predicting that the 2000 race would follow the usual script and that Forbes would therefore be the GOP nominee.

But the script has been rewritten. The ideological fervor that has characterized previous races is undetectable. Theories abound as to why this is so: Bush’s big lead; the rise of John McCain to overtake the more conservative Forbes as Bush’s chief rival; the defection of Pat Buchanan from the GOP; the failure of Alan Keyes or Gary Bauer to fill the void left by Buchanan; the decline of the Christian Coalition’s clout since Ralph Reed quit as the organization’s executive director; Reed’s new role as an adviser to Bush; the maturation of the religious conservative movement into a pragmatic political force that wants to win back the White House. Whatever the reason, Bush paid no penalty when he said he wouldn’t impose an abortion litmus test for Supreme Court nominees or when he scolded Republicans in Congress for trying to balance the budget on the backs of the poor; if anything, these statements worked to his advantage by impressing independent voters and the media.

The consequence is that Bush’s only opponent in the Substance Primary is himself. In the GOP field his policy pronouncements alone are newsworthy. But—here’s that lightweight issue again—the difficulty for Bush is to demonstrate that his ideas are his own rather than a recitation of somebody else’s words about somebody else’s ideas. How does he do this? One way is to articulate them fluently under the pressure of a debate—a skill, however, that he has never been able to master (and one, it might be added, that has little to do with the job of president).

In other words, the Substance Primary has turned into the Style Primary. As the Associated Press put it in a second-day story about the December 6 debate in Arizona, “[H]is scripted and sometimes vague answers have failed to silence questions about his political heft and readiness to lead the country”—or, if you prefer the New York Times‘ version, the problem was Bush’s “intellectual heft and poise.” Not that credentials necessarily win the media’s respect, as Bush reminded me on the trip to New Hampshire: “They complained that George Herbert Walker Bush was all résumé,” he said. “It’s a game.”

But the game is getting rough. In the Arizona debate Orrin Hatch said directly to Bush that instead of running for president, he should set his sights on being vice president: “You should have eight years with me,” Hatch said, “and, boy, you’ll make a heck of a president after eight years.” McCain chimed in the next day that Hatch’s line “was one that we all wanted to use, but he used it first.”

The lightweight question even found its way into the Reagan Library when Bush gave his foreign policy address there a week before Thanksgiving. The pop quiz on foreign leaders was still fresh news, and George Shultz, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State, went out of his way in his introduction to defend Bush’s intellect, describing him as somebody who likes being around people who like ideas. That sounded pretty good, unless you compared it to Shultz’s earlier description of Ronald Reagan: “a person of ideas.”

On January 24 the talk stops and the voting starts. That is the date of the Iowa caucuses, and unless Bush proposes a ban on growing corn, he will defeat Forbes, effectively knocking him out of the race. McCain isn’t making much of an effort in Iowa. All of his chips are on the February 1 New Hampshire primary. Polls matching Bush against McCain in the Granite State are statistically even, but much of McCain’s strength lies with independent voters, who can vote in the primary of their choice. Before McCain can defeat Bush, he must beat Bill Bradley, who is trying to lure those same independents to the Democratic side.

If McCain loses New Hampshire, it’s over. Even if he wins, it is hard to invent a scenario that ends with him as the nominee. He has a definite appeal to mavericks, but such voters are not the foundation on which political parties are built. He lacks the resources or the organization to tackle Bush in state after state, and because the primary season is front-loaded this year (California and New York vote on March 7), he doesn’t have the time either. Bush is strong everywhere; McCain is strong nowhere outside New Hampshire—not even in his home state of Arizona, where the governor has endorsed Bush, and certainly not in New York, where, the New York Observer has reported, he is unable to get on the ballot in many congressional districts, thanks to the efforts of Governor George Pataki, a Bush ally. If McCain can stay alive in New Hampshire, his next battleground is South Carolina on February 18. The former POW is counting on the large veterans’ vote there, but Bush has a solid lead. Unless Bush gets complacent or commits a fatal blunder—something akin to Edmund Muskie’s weeping in 1972—what can McCain do? Hope for vice president?

Not likely. McCain is his own man, which is the last thing any aspiring president wants his running mate to be (especially Bush, who values loyalty above all other qualities), and this independent streak causes him not to get on well with many Republicans in the Senate, a body he would preside over as vice president. Then who? The current GOP field is so weak that not only is it hard to envision any of Bush’s rivals as president but it’s equally hard to envision any of them as vice president. Among the dropouts, Lamar Alexander, John Kasich, and Elizabeth Dole will get a look. But Alexander has run for president twice without inspiring much interest; Kasich, an Ohio congressman, is pretty far down in the pecking order despite his chairmanship of the budget committee; and Dole has never held elected office and fizzled out when she tried to start at the top. Even worse, as one member of the Bush camp said to me last fall, you get Bob Dole telling her what to do and Bob Dole telling Bush what to do.

The ideal choice would be a big-state governor who is pro-life, close to Bush, and totally loyal—but brother Jeb in Florida will have to wait for another day. The swing area in the election is likely to be the Rust Belt, and several governors from the Midwest and Northeast are strong contenders, including John Engler of Michigan, Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, and Pataki of New York. But Engler doesn’t come across well on TV, Ridge is pro-choice, and so, to a lesser degree, is Pataki. In a year when Pat Buchanan could be the nominee of the Reform Party, Bush may not take the risk of picking a vice president who could cause pro-life activists to bolt the GOP. The trouble with picking a vice president is that whoever you settle on has some major flaw, or he’d be picking his vice president.

In the race for the Republican nomination, all Bush has had to do is sit on his lead, avoid the big gaffe, and run out the clock. The general election rates to be a far more difficult campaign. Bush would be carrying the weight of the unpopular Republican Congress, and polls show that the Democrats enjoy public support on such issues as HMO reform, gun control, and saving medicare and social security.

The conventional wisdom is that Bill Bradley would be the toughest opponent for Bush. Al Gore is inextricably tied to Bill Clinton; Bradley takes the Clinton issue off the table. Gore is a Washington insider; Bradley thumbed his nose at Washington, gave up his Senate seat, and left town. Gore hired Naomi Wolf to get him in touch with his alpha male side; Bradley is an ex-jock. Gore’s base is Tennessee; Bradley’s is New York and New Jersey, which are rich in electoral votes. But the Bush camp thinks that Bradley is too liberal and too elitist to appeal to the mass of voters. They also envision Clinton putting forth much more effort on behalf of Gore than he would for Bradley. Not only is the president the Democrats’ best fundraiser, but he also can get federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency to crack down on Texas, causing Bush embarrassment.

To win the presidency, Bush is going to have to raise the level of his game, and that brings us right back to the lightweight question. Can he do it? No one who watched Bush dominate the agenda in Texas during his years as governor has any doubts about his political heft. He is, to be sure, more intuitive than intellectual, but intuition is a more valuable political asset than intellectualism. In the end the lightweight issue is irritating but seldom devastating. Bush should know. Ann Richards tried it against him in 1994—and if it had worked, he wouldn’t be here.