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CAMPAIGN 2000

Bush Finesses Texas 2-Step of Privilege, Personality

Profile: GOP candidate's charmed life stems from both his pedigree and his affinity for people.

March 02, 2000|MARIA L. La GANGA and RICHARD SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

AUSTIN, Texas — George W. Bush's stump speech is all tax cuts and Texas twang, all entrepreneurial zeal and assurances that his ZIP code is Austin, not Washington.

So you'd never guess that his father, the former president, is distant kin to the queen of England. That his mother, Barbara Pierce Bush, shares bloodlines with President Franklin Pierce, the 14th man to run this country. That his grandfather Prescott Bush was a senator from Connecticut.

That many of his business deals and political endeavors have been heavily backed by family members and family friends. That the trajectory of his own life--from prep school to piloting, from the oil-rich Permian Basin to politics--closely follows his famous father's, albeit down a notch or so.

What the Texas governor stresses as he crisscrosses America appealing to voters is a string of accomplishments--education reform, tort reform and welfare reform in the Austin statehouse, drilling for oil on the Midland prairie, building a baseball stadium as managing general partner of the Texas Rangers.

Bush packages himself as the one true outsider in the contentious race for the Oval Office, and he rarely talks about his famous family. His parents campaign separately on his behalf, but he has only appeared with them together once. He occasionally mentions the difficulties of being a Bush, but rarely the benefits. Both have shaped him.

"It's hard to simplify what it means to be George W. Bush in terms of how other people perceive me," Bush said. "As I remind people who say, 'Well, if you were George Smith, you wouldn't be standing here as president,' I say, 'No, nor if I'd been George Bush who'd gotten whipped for governor or made a fool out of myself once I'd taken office.' "

1st Governor to Win Back-to-Back in Texas

George W. Bush, 53, wasn't whipped when he ran for Texas governor. In 1994, he beat out popular incumbent Ann Richards--who once chided his father for being "born with a silver foot in his mouth." And he was resoundingly reelected in 1998, the first governor to win back-to-back four-year terms in the history of the Lone Star State, in part by bringing record numbers of women, Latinos and African Americans into the Republican fold.

And far from making a fool of himself in Austin, he proudly points to tax cuts, school accountability measures, increased adoption rates and parental notification of minor girls' abortions as a few of the legacies he will leave behind if he makes it to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in January.

But he's not there yet, and the fight is getting tougher. The Republican establishment, which tossed him early endorsements and record campaign contributions in part because of his pedigree and his popularity, is worried. Did they tip their hand too soon? Are they betting big on an unknown quantity?

Thrust forward as front-runner once the Republican race began, Bush has been forced to learn as he goes. With little national political experience--ample charm but less acumen--his candidacy is a work in progress. He started out in political center field, lost the New Hampshire primary, tilted right, won in South Carolina and now must work his way back to winning moderation.

As governor, "for the most part, he's shown adeptness, good political pitch," says Bruce Buchanan, who specializes in presidential politics at the University of Texas. "But all the problems of his candidacy come from the fact that he was thrust forward because he's the scion of a famous family."

An Exercise in Love and Distance

When George W. Bush talks about George H.W. Bush on the campaign trail it is an exercise in love and distance: I inherited half his friends and all of his enemies. . . . I got my dad's eyes and my mother's mouth. . . . He went to Greenwich Country Day; I went to San Jacinto Junior High.

Actually, George W. only attended Midland's San Jacinto for a year before his parents sent him to the Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., the prep school his father had attended. Then it was on to Yale University, where his scholar father had captained the baseball team and he himself pulled down gentleman's Cs.

"I don't think he said, 'I'm going [to] duplicate it, go to Andover, go to Yale, get engaged when I'm 20, move to Midland.' But when you look back on it, the parallels are remarkable," said boyhood friend Doug Hannah. "They say an awful lot of things skip generations. His father was a better baseball player, a better student, a better pilot, probably made more money."

If George W. didn't stand out on Yale's academic rolls, he certainly stood out at the fraternity house, where perhaps his greatest political skill--one of the biggest differences between himself and his father--was early and publicly on display.

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