COLUMBUS, Ohio - As the personal pressure of an official presidential nomination began to mount, Texas Gov. George W. Bush sought yesterday to protect his teen-age twin daughters from the hoopla, declaring that he had no problem with their reluctance to join their parents in the media glare.
Bush's wife, Laura, ascended the main stage last night to deliver the Republican convention's first prime-time address, but her 18-year-old daughters, Barbara and Jenna, chose not to accompany her. Neither will they join their father on stage after he formally accepts the GOP nomination Thursday night, campaign aides said.
Their decision will deprive the nation of a stock image of family unity on perhaps the biggest night of Bush's political career, but the governor shrugged it off with the equanimity of a father who has grown used to the whims of teen-age offspring.
"If they're reluctant to go out on the stage with us Thursday night, it doesn't bother me in the least," Bush told reporters at the Columbus airport, after he saw his wife off to the GOP convention.
"I'm concerned about these little girls," Bush said. "I truly am. I want them to be happy. To the extent possible, I want them to be shielded from all the news and all the noise of politics."
His wife's reluctance to enter the political realm has become a running joke on Bush's "Renewing America's Purpose" tour through America's heartland. When Bush asked Laura to marry him just before his failed 1978 congressional campaign, she agreed - as long as she did not have to give any speeches.
"It's the one political promise I've broken," he tells the crowds that have turned out by the thousands as he winds his way through six battleground states on the way to Philadelphia.
That line, a stock phrase ever since he launched his candidacy, emerged again yesterday, as he stumped for the second day in the key state of Ohio, first in Dayton, then Columbus. No Republican has won the presidency without capturing Ohio and its 21 electoral college votes.
As his wife was introduced, Bush stared intently at a television screen at Westerville South High School outside of Columbus, Ohio. "She looks great," Bush said. After his wife declared that she was proud to open the convention that would nominate her husband as the next president of the United States, he turned to high school students and reporters and said, "I wrote that line for her ... just kidding."
The Ohio campaigning was part of an effort to reach out to Democrats and swing voters. As he ventures into more Democratic territory, jabs at the Clinton administration have been tempered.
In conservative northwestern Arkansas Monday, Bush took direct shots at President Clinton's character. In Kentucky and Cincinnati, it was left to Bush surrogates to deliver punches. But in Dayton, a city that leans Democratic, broadsides were replaced by sunny optimism.
"There's a new day coming to the White House," Bush declared. "There's a new attitude in Washington, D.C."
The Texas first lady has made numerous speeches on behalf of her husband since that long-ago promise was broken. But last night's was the biggest, and she was admittedly nervous.
Bush communications director Karen Hughes said Laura Bush confided that she had a sleepless night on the eve of yesterday's speech, listening to the clocks chime at the Cincinnati home of longtime Bush friend and one-time business partner Bill DeWitt.
Bush said he was not nervous about his wife's performance and did not feel guilty for pushing her onto the national stage. "She's nervous for herself," he conceded, "but she shouldn't be. She's a wonderful speaker. She's got a nice message, and I'm excited for her."
Laura's mother, Jenna Welch, watched her daughter last night from the family box, a point of particular pride for the governor, who said his wife "had a very, very close relationship with her mom and dad."
"Her dad was an incredibly wonderful man, a down-to-earth guy you know, and I suspect from heaven, he's smiling, watching his only daughter give a speech to the Republican convention," Bush said.
He was less effusive about his daughters' emotions. Jenna will attend the University of Texas next year, while Barbara will follow in the footsteps of her father and grandfather by heading to Yale University.
Both daughters have been virtually invisible on the campaign trail, and Bush hinted that they were none too pleased about the tumult surrounding their father.
"I suspect they're a lot more proud, and they're a lot more excited than they're letting on," he said. "I think that they are going to get caught up in the excitement. Conventions are exciting, and I think they'll enjoy it."
"If they do, they certainly won't tell me they did," he added with the joking smile of a teen- weary dad.