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'Campaign mode' is hard shift for Bush

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HOUSTON -- As a little boy, George Bush was so conscientious about offering to share whatever he had with playmates, his family called him "Have-half."

The trait was the beginning of a lifelong habit of showering people with so many courtesies and attentions that Mr. Bush has built a wider and more loyal network of buddies, pals, companions, admirers and friends than most if not all of his Oval Office predecessors.

But as he arrived here yesterday to formally begin his uphill battle for re-election, he was girding himself for combat with Democrat Bill Clinton by drawing on the less likable side of his personality.

In order to repeat the tough, focused, sharp-edged -- some would say ruthless -- campaign he waged against Michael S. Dukakis in 1988, Mr. Bush has to fix on Mr. Clinton in his own mind as the personification of something threatening, evil or unworthy.

"It's all personal with Bush," said Richard Ben Cramer, a former Baltimore Sun reporter who studied the president's style in painstaking detail for his book "What It Takes: The Way to the White House."

"He has to make Clinton into a bully," Mr. Cramer said. "A bully can be dealt with."

Mr. Bush had clearly begun to regard Mr. Clinton as an enemy by yesterday morning when in a speech to a veterans convention in Indianapolis he made thinly veiled references to charges that his opponent evaded the draft in order to escape service in Vietnam.

"That war was controversial; many refused to serve," the president noted as he paid tribute to Vietnam veterans in his audience. Then he went on to recall in detail his own experience as a pilot shot down in World War II.

"I understand right in here what makes military service so special," he said, touching his heart. "Military service is a greater leveler."

Later, before a rally of several thousand supporters, Mr. Bush explained: "In politics, I've always done better when I fight back."

Election campaigns are not about issues or philosophy for Mr. Bush, who at 68 is facing the last hurrah of a political career that began in this city 30 years ago. That's one of the reasons he's always had such trouble articulating what he wants to do in office other than his best.

"Government service is a high public calling for him," observed ,, Sheila Tate, Mr. Bush's campaign press secretary in 1988. It's something his father, the late Sen. Prescott Bush of Connecticut, taught him: people like themselves who have been lucky in their financial circumstances should give back to the country.

But serving in office has almost nothing to do with running for office as far as Mr. Bush is concerned, Ms. Tate said. "It's like two different sides of his brain," she said.

He runs because he wants to serve -- thinks he should serve -- and he works himself up to the challenge of competition by repressing his instinctive friendliness in order to get angry at the other guy.

"He says things to himself like, 'Who does that guy think he is? He's not qualified to be president,' " said Vic Gold, a Washington writer and longtime friend who helped Mr. Bush write his autobiography. "He can get very, very tough then and justify being tough."

The same phenomenon was at work to an extreme degree when Mr. Bush prepared himself to order U.S. soldiers into war to evict invading Iraqi forces from Kuwait. He made it a personal crusade against Saddam Hussein, whom he publicly compared with Hitler.

It is telling that the Serbian leaders who have been accused of running death camps in Bosnia have not yet rated such a characterization from the president. He's been much more reluctant to commit U.S. military force there.

The "have-half," make-friends side of the president's personality appears to be dominant. It was much in evidence during the first

three years of his term.

Mr. Bush took such obvious delight in finally winning the job he'd been groomed for all his life he seemed to want every one to share his good fortune. He invited more than 200 members of his extended family to a White House party his first weekend in office and kept the social schedule going non-stop thereafter.

Reporters got to ride in his armored limousine to go jogging with him; members of Congress were allowed to bounce on the Lincoln Bed. Friends, foreign leaders and movies stars spent the weekend with him at Camp David.

The White House staff of butlers, gardeners and maintenance workers were included in an annual horseshoe pitching tournament for which the president himself made up the team rosters and scheduled the matches.

At his vacation home in Kennebunkport, Maine, new acquaintances from his presidential life -- most recently Israeli Prime Yitzhak Rabin -- were encouraged to sample two of his favorite pleasures: inspecting the wonders of marine life along the seacoast and feeling the exhilarating rush of a ride in his powerful speedboat, Fidelity.

The torrent of thank-you notes he'd always sent to anyone who extended the slightest kindness to him now come hand-scrawled and complete with cross-outs on stationery that reads simply: "The President." Keepsakes all.

Conservatives complained, in fact, that Mr. Bush was too nice in dealing with Congress, seeming to be more eager to compromise with his friends in the Democratic leadership -- letting them "have-half" -- than to take an unyielding stand for some principle.

He cannot sit still in front of a room full of people because he's constantly scanning the audience for familiar faces and rewarding each one with winks, waves, nods and grins.

He all but called out to a 31-year-old mother of two at commencement exercises last year for a night high school program at which she was named valedictorian. He was so taken by her speech, he couldn't wait for her to get back to her seat so he could flash her a thumbs-up. Later, he gave her a hug and kiss along with her diploma and a story she will tell all her life.

But Mr. Bush's engaging nature doesn't come through well at a distance.

When he's trying to sound impassioned in a speech he can sometimes be shrill; when he gets tired he lapses into a fractured syntax that makes him sound goofy. ("Don't cry for me Argentina," he said apropos of nothing at the end of a long, hectic day in New Hampshire last winter.)

And television somehow changes his whole persona.

"When he's talking to you in person, he's very friendly and forceful, but on TV he's like LBJ -- he just freezes," observed Richard Taylor, a Republican National Committee member from Maryland.

It's been very hard for Mr. Bush to shift back into what he calls the "campaign mode," where he has to try again to sell himself wholesale. He's been on the stump since January but hasn't been "switched on," as one aide put it.

Part of the delay has been the president's traditional view of elections.

"His internal clock isn't set to go off until after the convention," observed B. Jay Cooper, communications director for the Republican National Committee. "It was the same way four years ago."

But he's also been sorely dispirited by an electorate that doesn't seem to appreciate what he considers major foreign policy achievements. Living in the White House bubble, where aides say almost no one ever gives him bad news, it took Mr. Bush a long time to realize how unhappy people were about what they consider his inattention to domestic issues.

"I said I would never wring my hands and talk about the loneliest job in the world or complain, and I've tried to keep an even disposition, stay strong," Mr. Bush said in a recent interview with USA Today. "But nobody likes to be constantly criticized."

Pete Teeley, another former Bush press secretary who is now U.S. ambassador to Canada, observed: "He's down, and it's been difficult for him to get up off the carpet . . . He needs to be challenged a bit."

That challenge is expected to come with his renomination Thursday and the arrival at the White House next week of his best friend and top political adviser, James A. Baker III. Then, he should be ready to get back in the ring for a gloves-off bout with Mr. Clinton.

The transformation was already under way in his mind when he spoke to USA Today.

Asked what he thinks of Mr. Clinton, the president called his opponent "a friendly person."

"He's done some good things," he said. "But now, I have to stop saying nice things and start doing what he's been doing to me for six months -- six months -- that is, pointing out his record."

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