WASHINGTON — After an unsteady December, George W. Bush in the last 10 days has emphatically reminded the Republican presidential field why he emerged as the race's clear front-runner in the first place.
With more confident performances in candidate debates, a more aggressive message and a display of his financial might, Bush has regained the momentum in the GOP contest, many analysts believe.
After constructing plans to recover from a possible loss in New Hampshire, Bush's campaign now believes it has a chance to defeat Sen. John McCain of Arizona in the Feb. 1 primary there and deflate the senator's insurgent challenge. "I think that's a possibility now," said one senior Bush advisor, "and I didn't think it was a possibility two weeks ago."
Bush is hardly out of the woods: A New Hampshire win would still boost McCain's prospects in key states such as Michigan and South Carolina, where he has gained ground recently. And a victory in the first primary remains well within reach for McCain. But many Republican analysts believe Bush has boxed in McCain by moving sharply to the senator's right on taxes and campaign finance reform.
"From McCain's standpoint, being the left-winger in a Republican primary doesn't give you a lot of place to go," says GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio, the chief strategist for Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign.
Better Signs for Bush in N.H.
Though the exact shape of the New Hampshire race remains cloudy, there are signs Bush has improved his position after trailing McCain in most polls in the state late last year. One survey released Tuesday by independent pollster John Zogby showed McCain maintaining a solid 41%-to-34% lead over Bush, but other new surveys by the Boston Herald and the American Research Group showed Bush now running even or slightly ahead.
Meanwhile, the latest poll in Iowa, where McCain is not campaigning, shows Bush maintaining a commanding lead over publisher Steve Forbes. Nationwide, Bush maintains large leads in the polls.
Analysts credit three factors for Bush's stronger showing.
First, the Texas governor has significantly improved his performances in the debates. In his first appearances last month in New Hampshire and Arizona, Bush appeared so nervous and tentative that even some aides lamented that he looked like a student worrying about flunking a test.
Though sources say Bush bristled at times against advisors who tried to critique his performance, several close to him said he recognized that his initial showings were inadequate. "He is a pretty good critic of himself, and he is very competitive," said the senior advisor. "He took a look at those first two debates and said he could do better."
In the three rapid-fire GOP debates this past week, Bush appeared much more confident and relaxed. Though he has still struggled on some answers--he had difficulty parrying Gary Bauer on Monday when Bauer asked him why he was willing to trade with China but not Cuba--Bush has shown more of his personality and an occasional quick wit.
"His debate performance was much more effective," says R. Kelly Myers, a New Hampshire pollster who conducts surveys for the Boston Herald. "He didn't get away completely from his stock responses, but he came across a little more like an approachable, likable person."
The second factor in Bush's recovery has been his move to outflank McCain on the right. Starting with last month's debate in Des Moines, Bush has repeatedly lashed McCain's campaign finance proposals as a threat to the GOP and denounced the Arizonan's proposed tax cut as insufficient.
McCain has not shrunk from Bush's attack. On Tuesday, he released the details of a plan that would devote about three-fourths of the expected operating budget surplus to Social Security, Medicare and paying down the national debt, while cutting taxes only about half as much as Bush over the next five years.
Some surveys (including one conducted in November by The Times) have found that most Republicans, both nationally and in New Hampshire, prefer to use the surplus much as McCain has proposed rather than devoting virtually all of it to a tax cut, as Bush has urged. But it's not clear that the smaller group of partisans who participate in primaries share that view. And the real risk to McCain may be that Bush's tax cut and campaign finance arguments reinforce each other to make the senator unacceptable to many conservative voters.
Rightward Tilt Threatens McCain
Bush's repositioning could carry a cost in diminishing his appeal to centrist voters in November if he wins the nomination. But in the near term, Bush's tilt right would seem to threaten McCain, especially in more conservative states such as South Carolina and Michigan that hold primaries later in February. "Bush has very effectively positioned himself as the conservative Republican in the race," says Myers.