Bush's free ride

With a little help from his Democratic pals, George W. Bush has become the GOP front-runner for president. But it's a cold world beyond Texas' borders, and it may take more than charm and luck to carry a good ol' boy to the White House.

"But people are longing for someone to elevate the process above the zero-sum-game world we're in. And I think that's part of the reason why I'm doing well in Texas. I think that's why people who might have been predisposed not to vote for me or like me as governor are saying, 'Wow, this guy brings a different attitude to the process.'"

For a moment, Bush sounds as though he has slipped into a Southern accent as he gives his stump speech to about 125 Republicans at a rally inside a sparsely adorned auditorium of the Victoria Electric Co-op building. Victoria was the first stop on his three-city South Texas campaign swing.

"I like campaignin'. I like seein' my fellow Texans. I like talkin' from my heart," he tells them. Hey, they like him too. There's so much like in the room that it's almost like love. When Bush leaves the stage, he is mobbed. This happens everywhere he goes.

"If you're searching for the best angle, there's not going to be one," he jokes before a flash goes off. For 30 minutes, Bush schmoozes with the masses until he has shaken every last hand that wants shaking. He shakes the hand of a woman who identifies herself only as a juvenile probation officer. Bush recalls that the pair had met before when he christened Victoria County's new juvenile detention center.

That was in September 1995, the woman, Pama Hencerling, reveals later. "He has seen me a few times since then at events like this rally," she says. "And he recognizes me every time. That's pretty good, isn't it? I'm amazed."

Some politicians are snakes. Bush is a charmer. In Victoria, he playfully punched the upper arms of three teenage boys he had just met. He cocked his head forward as an older woman talked to him, gently resting his hand on her shoulder as she spoke. He acted downright chummy to a down-home fellow dressed in overalls.

"Steve!" Bush said as he slapped Steve on the shoulder as if he had known Steve his whole life, though they had just met.

He often rewards those he knows better by giving them silly nicknames, such as "Izzy" or "Stretch." He sometimes slips into his habit of greeting familiar people by enthusiastically punching his fist in the air three times. It's quite the guy thing.

Whether meeting working-class Texans on the campaign trail or legislative leaders inside the Capitol, Bush has used his interpersonal prowess to gain political points. Jerry Patterson, who was one of only two Republican state senators not to endorse Bush early in the 1994 primary, compares Bush's charisma to that of Clinton. "Except George Bush comes across as not quite as slick, not quite as suave, and a lot more genuine," Patterson says. "That sells to people, especially those who have been around the political process for years and years like Bullock and Laney, who can smell a fake a mile away."

Tony Garza, Bush's first secretary of state and a Republican candidate for railroad commissioner, says the governor "has an intuitive feel about people. In turn, people feel comfortable around him. He has a way of making people feel like he's one of them."

The grandson of a U.S. senator from a Yankee state, an Ivy Leaguer who attended an elite prep school in Massachusetts, Bush is the unlikeliest of good ol' boys. In his inaugural address in 1995, Bush declared, "Texans can run Texas," ignoring the fact that he was born in New Haven, Connecticut. Bush was a toddler when his parents moved to Texas. He attended junior high school in Midland, but headed east to become a student at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and then at Yale University in New Haven, both alma maters of his father.

Clay Johnson, the governor's appointments director and Bush's classmate at both Andover and Yale, says Bush was popular in school. At Andover, he was the school's head cheerleader. The Andover students also drafted Bush to be commissioner of their stickball league, nicknaming him "Tweeds Bush" after Boss Tweed, the infamous New York political boss.

"Everybody knew George Bush, and he knew everybody," Johnson says. "People were attracted to him then, as now. He's fun to be around. He's energizing."

At Andover, Bush says, he did fine in history and math but poorly in English. There has long been talk that he got into Yale not because of his smarts, but because of his family name. His grandfather, Prescott Bush, was a U.S. senator from Connecticut from 1952 to 1962. Bush enrolled in Yale in 1964.

Bush believes he was accepted into Yale on his merits, but he also tells how, while attending Andover, the dean once asked him where he planned to go to college. When Bush told him he was thinking about Yale, the dean replied, "Well, you won't get in there, so where else are you thinking of going?"

Bush admits to having two brushes with the law at Yale. One involved pilfering a Christmas wreath from a store display so he could hang it on the door of his frat house. Police booked him on a misdemeanor charge but later dropped it. The other involved tearing down the goal posts at Princeton University's football field after Yale defeated their Ivy League rival in 1967. He was not arrested.

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