“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 problems of America that people care about as Al Gore is. That he is, in other words, a new kind of Republican.
THE POLITICAL CLIMATE
Like water seekers with witching rods, political strategists try to divine the national mood. Sometimes the impetus for change or the desire for continuity is obvious. Ronald Reagan benefited from the former in 1980 and from the latter in 1984. In such circumstances the outcome of the presidential race is all but predetermined. Strategy cannot trump destiny. Will 2000 be that kind of year? A recent Washington Post article told how a group of professors predicted a Democratic victory, based upon a healthy economy and a popular incumbent. It is true that voters are often motivated by their pocketbooks; good times benefit the ins, as bad times benefit the outs. But many Americans no longer credit the government with bringing us the good times. A recent poll asked whether Bill Clinton or Bill Gates had more influence over the economy; Gates was the winner by a margin of 68 to 20. The academics’ models may not apply to 2000, a year in which the economy is statistically good but the stock market has been running out of gas, in which approval of the president’s job performance is high but approval of his personal behavior has not been. “Those professors may think that the incumbent is popular,” Bush told me, “but I don’t. This incumbent is not popular, and his vice president is not popular. I’ll stake the election on this: If you want four more years of Clinton-Gore, don’t vote for me.”
What Bush’s strategists are looking for are signs that the voters are receptive to change. (Some support for change is inevitable at the tail end of an eight-year presidency; call it the channel-surfing effect.) A standard question in political polls is, Do you think that the country is generally on the right track or the wrong track? For most of Clinton’s presidency, a majority has answered the right track. Recently, however, the right-track responses have dipped below 50 percent—a good omen for Bush.
Another way to look at the political climate is through a longer lens, placing the 2000 election in the context of history. Karl Rove, Bush’s chief strategist, believes that the major political parties have arrived at a rough equilibrium, having exhausted their twentieth-century agendas. Republicans have cut taxes, defeated communism, stopped the growth of big government, and returned power to the states. Democrats have won acceptance of the economic safety net, secured rights for women and minorities, enshrined ethnic and cultural diversity as important national values, and maintained a government that is still big, if not quite as big as it once was. Now we are at the beginning of a new century, a time when the country anticipates change but has no clear idea of what it will bring. In such a climate, Rove believes, the voters will be drawn to a leader who is optimistic and open to change, but within a reassuring conservative framework.
The darkest moment for Bush occurred just after McCain whipped him in New Hampshire, when he arrived in South Carolina to find that he trailed his unexpectedly fearsome rival in that pivotal state by five points. While meeting voters, he was greeted by a man who said, “I want to shake the hand of the next vice president.” So lackluster was Bush’s performance during the period leading up to the primaries that his support versus Gore’s had been eroding for half a year. The Bush campaign tracks the average of 35 major national polls each month; last September, he led Gore by an average of sixteen points (53 to 37). The average margin fell a point a month until it reached twelve in January and then went into free fall during the primary season: five points in February, less than two in March. During those two months, Gore topped Bush in 6 polls—the only times he has finished on top in 186 surveys covering the period from January 1999 to mid-May of this year. In April Bush widened the gap again to five points, and it remained there in May. This is a shaky lead, one that is within the margin of error for most polls, but it represents a turnaround of a disastrous trend. (There is also the issue of a ceiling on Gore’s support, which Bush strategists would have you believe is even more telling. Their spin is that the vice president has exceeded 46 percent only 6 times in the 186 polls and has never reached 50 percent, while Bush has hit or exceeded the 50 percent mark 115 times. This sounds impressive until you realize that only 2 of the polls in which Bush hit 50 percent were taken after February of this year. The rest are ancient history.)
Does any of this make any difference with two conventions, three debates, and more than four months to go? Not surprisingly, the Bush camp says it does. They point to a Gallup poll conducted between May 18 and May 21. Bush led, 45 to 38, but the poll found that only 41 percent of those surveyed had made up their mind about who they are going to vote for. More than half of the Bush supporters (56 percent) said that they were committed to voting for him in November. Only a little over a third of the Gore voters (37 percent) had made up their mind. Referring to the solidifying of Bush’s support, his media strategist, Mark McKinnon, says, “It’s all getting baked into the cake.”Think of the two campaigns Bush has waged in Texas. In his 1994 race against incumbent governor Ann Richards, he ran on his message. He overcame suspicions that he was a lightweight who was running on his name and family connections—sound familiar?—with a serious reform agenda that tackled big issues: education, welfare, juvenile crime, tort law. In his 1998 reelection bid against Garry Mauro, he ran on his image. His main proposals, ending the social promotion of failing students and cutting property taxes, were not high on anybody’s agenda except his own, and they were secondary to his popularity.
Bush’s GOP primary campaign was closer to the Mauro model than the Richards model—and that was the problem. The carefully orchestrated visits to Austin by out-of-state politicians, the dodging of the national media, the substitution of slogans (“compassionate conservative”) for message, the fundraising totals shooting upward like a hit CD on the charts: Bush was running as a star who had only to show up and bask in public adulation. He was content to run this way. Never having faced a primary challenge in his gubernatorial races, he wasn’t comfortable with being the prime target of both the media and all of his rivals, and he didn’t know whether or how to fight back. And he was frustrated by the rhythm of the primary campaign. “As a politician, you’re conditioned for winning or losing,” he told me. “The primaries are like a perpetual runoff. You win the Iowa caucuses, you’re flush with victory, and then you fly to New Hampshire and start all over again.”
When McCain emerged as a major challenger, Bush was in serious trouble. He didn’t like the process, and in New Hampshire, it was obvious. Had McCain stayed with his themes of making politics more honest and paying down the national debt instead of griping about negative campaigning, he would have had a great chance to win South Carolina and march toward the nomination.
In defeat, McCain did Bush an enormous favor. He exposed the weakness of the celebrity candidacy—it is political suicide for the son of a former president, who has to prove himself worthy, to run on image instead of message—in time for it to be corrected. And Bush got the opportunity to show how he would react to a crisis, something that both the voters and the media were waiting to see. (“It was a backbone check,” Bush acknowledges. “Did I have personally what it took to get up and fight?”) And, because McCain made an open appeal to Democrats and independents, he was the catalyst that cemented the party faithful to Bush. The GOP is more united than it has been since 1984.
Out of the McCain race, then, came the Bush strategy for the period between the primaries and the convention: Define yourself as the agent of change. Take the initiative. Set the agenda. Boldly go where no Republican has gone before. Confront the smarts issue with a blizzard of policy addresses. (Among the Bush campaign handouts in mid-May was a sheet headed “32 Policy Messages Since March 13.” Another carries the line “27 Gore Attacks in 35 days.” The spin is that Bush is positive, Gore is negative; Bush is change, Gore is status quo; Bush is a new kind of Republican, Gore is an old kind of Democrat.) If the catchphrase of the 1992 Clinton campaign was “It’s the economy, stupid,” then the catchphrase of the reborn Bush campaign of 2000 is “It’s the Ann Richards race, stupid.” Why didn’t the Bush team come up with this formula during the primaries, when the campaign was in such trouble? Because it wouldn’t have worked. If Bush had unveiled his new-kind-of-Republican policies during the primary, they would not have helped him against McCain. His proposal for unilateral nuclear arms reductions may make perfect sense in the post-cold war age, but the large number of retired veterans in South Carolina probably wouldn’t have bought it. Nor would Bush’s emphasis on reading programs for urban schools have excited a party anchored in suburbia—and whose right wing is suspicious of any federal role in education.
In a primary race the range of issues tends to be limited to traditional party concerns, about which members of the same party seldom have major disagreements. Consequently the media focus is on process issues: Gore reinventing himself, Bradley’s weak response, Bush and McCain accusing each other of negative campaigning. Policy becomes important if, like Bush early in the debates, you don’t seem to know it.
But in a general-election campaign, the range of issues includes everything. Policy positions are a way of appealing to voters interested in a particular issue and also a way of sending a symbolic message to all voters. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the issue that shapes up as the biggest battleground for Bush and Gore: Social Security. It’s known as the third rail of American politics: Touch it and you die. Yet Bush has touched it—make that, grabbed it—by proposing that young workers be allowed to put a portion of their Social Security taxes in individual investment accounts. The downside is that the elderly and near elderly will rise against anyone who tampers with Social Security; the upside was stated by Bush himself in an interview with the Associated Press: “I’m driving the campaign on issues, on announcements, on vision. The accumulated effect, I hope is, ‘Here is a guy who knows how to lead.’” The early returns are favorable. A poll in Florida, the state with the largest retirement community, taken just before and just after Bush came out with his Social Security plan, showed his lead over Gore growing from 2 percent to 11 percent.
To be sure, these are only first impressions. Millions of dollars and countless soundbites will be applied to this issue before Election Day. But the presidential race isn’t a sprint where everybody starts out even; it’s more like an America’s Cup yacht race, where one side can get an edge before the starting line. Bush sailed across the line first. The conventional wisdom remains that the Democrats are better situated to take advantage of the issues that are uppermost in the public’s mind. Gore laid them out in a recent letter to contributors: The top three were Social Security, education, and health care. (Another, gun control, helps Gore in some states and hurts him in others.) For years Democrats have outmaneuvered Republicans on these issues, painting the GOP as caring more about money than people and gaining a significant edge among women voters in the process. Bush knows that he has to narrow the gender gap. “If we act like Social Security reform isn’t a Republican issue,” Bush told me, “what are we supposed to talk about when everybody else is talking about Social Security?”
Bush hates to be on the defensive, but he will find it unavoidable when Gore or his surrogates attack his record as governor of Texas. Democratic researchers have amassed pages of statistics about the state’s shortcomings: “Texas Ranked Next to Last in Women Without Health Insurance,” “Texas Led the Nation in Pollution since 1995,” “Report Showed Texas Ranked 2nd Worst in Hunger,” and much more. The question is whether Gore can persuasively argue that these failings can be attributed to Bush. Some Gore strategists believe that the criticism of Bush’s governorship should focus on things he actually was responsible for (vetoes of a patients’ rights bill and a bill making state government more responsive to the problem of hunger; and his preference for reducing pollution through voluntary actions by industry). Others want to make him out to be the worst chief executive since Nero. The national conventions are the first time in the election cycle that Americans start paying serious attention. This phase of the race is more important for Gore than for Bush: It represents the vice president’s best, and possibly last, opportunity to separate himself from Bill Clinton on the character issue (but not on the economy), establish an identity for himself, and frame the issues for the voters.
For Bush, the most important task is the selection of a running mate. This is crucial because it could be an obstacle to party unity. The problem for Bush is that a pro-choice pick would infuriate the hard-core pro-lifers. At best, they would attack him on national TV; at worst, they would stay home on Election Day or cast a protest vote for, say, likely Reform party nominee Pat Buchanan. Is Bush ready to take that risk? Loyalty matters more to him than ideology; he would prefer someone he has been comfortable with for a long time, and the name everyone comes back to is Tom Ridge, the governor of the swing state of Pennsylvania. But Ridge is pro-choice. Unless Bush can do some preliminary fence-mending with the pro-lifers, Ridge violates the number one rule of choosing a potential vice president: First, do no harm. Americans pick their president in a most peculiar way, not in one election but in 51 separate elections, one in each state and in the District of Columbia. National polls measure the popular vote, but they don’t measure the electoral vote, in which each state gets one vote for every member of Congress: Texas, for example, has 2 senators and 30 representatives, or 32 electoral votes. California has 54. Washington, D.C., has 3. The total number of electoral votes is 538; the magic number needed to win is 270.
The result in many states is already a foregone conclusion. Bush will carry Texas along with all of the plains and mountain states of the West, except for New Mexico, which is a toss-up, and possibly Colorado. The South is almost as Republican as the West; Gore can’t count on a single state, although he will probably end up taking his home state of Tennessee; he has chances in Arkansas and Louisiana and is a long shot in Florida, if the elderly turn against Bush. Gore should win California and New York, the two states with the most votes (87 between them) and most if not all of New England.
Rove’s U.S. map shows states in which Bush is leading, according to public polls, colored in two shades of blue (light for a lead of five to nine points, dark for ten points or greater), states in which Gore is leading in two shades of red (ditto), and states that are too close to call in yellow. Foremost among the yellows are Illinois, Michigan, and New Jersey, in the industrial North. The blue states alone, he tells me, add up to 277 electoral votes. This means, he says, that to win, Gore is going to have to hold on to all of his states, capture all of the swing states, and take a state or two away from Bush. It is not hard to find prospects for Gore among the light-colored blue states: West Virginia and Wisconsin, for starters. Still, Rove has a point. Gore has no margin for error.
He’s not the only one who thinks so. Based on available public polling data, hotlinescoops.com, a neutral political Web site, has Bush ahead in states with a total of 282 electoral votes. But a number of states have no reports, including Utah, Wyoming, North Dakota, Kansas, and Mississippi. Bush is a heavy favorite to carry every one of these states, which collectively are worth 24 electoral votes, putting him at 306, well over the number he needs.
Of course, the maps don’t mean that Bush has the election wrapped up any more than the professors’ models mean that Gore has the edge. When he was on top a year ago, with a much bigger lead than he has now, Bush was vague about what he believed. Today he has offered more details, which gives Gore something tangible to attack. Being specific has its risks. When I asked Bush about this, particularly his gamble on Social Security, he said, “What people want is someone willing to lead.” Then he shrugged. “Why run if you’re not going to take on the big issues?”