CHICAGO — It was early enough in the morning that commuters from the West Side wards and suburbs funneling through the Jefferson Street El station may have thought they were still dreaming.
But the distinguished-looking fellow with the out-thrust hand and the preppy smile stamped on his face was no apparition. It was Vice President George Bush, ordinarily a distant and sheltered figure, making a cameo appearance in unlikely surroundings last week to dramatize his freshly announced candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination.
Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson, a Bush booster, hailed the vice president's brief venture into street politics: "When a candidate for President goes to a Chicago El stop and starts talking to people, you know he's serious."
No one doubts that Bush is serious. The amount of money he has raised to finance his effort, roughly $14 million, is ample proof of that. Most polls give him a healthy lead over his five rivals, and he is confident enough that last week, when asked to rate his chances of winning the nomination on a scale of 1 to 10, he answered 9.
What Bush does need to prove, though, is that he can generate enough enthusiasm among Republican voters to fulfill the expectations raised by his front-runner status. And that, as Bush's first days as an official candidate demonstrated, will be no easy task.
At times last week, as he made his way around the country, Bush seemed to zig to the center, promising to promote racial harmony from the Oval Office. At other times he seemed to zag to the right, pledging to push for a supply-side loophole in the restructured income tax code. At week's end, Bush was still struggling to find a compass heading that would carry his message to the hearts of party activists and back up his claim to be Ronald Reagan's legatee.
Part of the problem stems from the inhibitions built into being vice president. It would be precarious for Bush to strike out too boldly on his own, lest he seem disloyal.
Another, more fundamental difficulty is with George Herbert Walker Bush himself and the political style he has made his own for more than two decades. His is a profile in caution, a blurred outline etched through a career spent crafting compromises rather than leading charges.
Bush is scarcely unique among American politicians in his avoidance of enduring ideological commitment. Pragmatism has long been the dominant rule in both political parties, but Bush, more than most national political leaders, has allowed himself to be defined by circumstances and by his opponents.
The best-remembered example of Bush rhetoric is not some credo of his, but the epithet "voodoo economics," coined to describe Reagan's strategy for spurring the economy by cutting taxes. And Bush, who uttered that phrase while competing with Reagan for the 1980 GOP nomination, has been trying to recant it ever since.
Style Shaped by Past
In part, at least, the 63-year-old vice president's style as a politician has been shaped by his much-vaunted resume. Since he left Congress in 1970 after two terms in the House, Mary Louise Smith, former Republican national chairwoman and a longtime Bush ally and admirer, pointed out, "George has never had a job that required him to take definitive positions."
Now, of course, in seeking the White House, Bush is asking for just such a job. "The presidency isn't like anything else," Bush told about 500 supporters in a Des Moines hotel ballroom. "A presidency can shape an era."
Bush sounded confident that he is ready for such a challenge. "I was elected in 1980, I felt, to support the President," he told a meeting of Chicago party functionaries Thompson had recruited for his cause. "And I did, and I'm proud of it.
"But now," he continued, "what I've got to do is say, 'Hey, we're shifting gears, we're moving into the '90s. And here's what I, George Bush, think are the best answers to the nation's problems.' "
His strategists predict he will be able to set out those answers without giving offense to the President, his staff or his supporters.
"He is not going to separate himself from the record of the past seven years," said Craig Fuller, the vice president's chief of staff. "But he is going to build on that record and talk about what he thinks are unfinished items on the agenda."
This is not the first time, though, that Bush has taken the center of the political stage and sought to establish himself as a winner in his own right. He last tried that in 1980, after his upset victory over Reagan in the Iowa caucuses. The net result for Bush was a shattering defeat.