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Bush follows gut instincts

NEW YORK — NEW YORK - When White House aides enter the Oval Office to speak with President Bush, there are dos and don'ts: Look polished. Never be late. Most of all: Be clear and quick in what you say. The boss isn't fond of lengthy policy chats.

Bush likes hearing differing opinions - just not long ones. If he feels an adviser has veered from a topic, he'll often send the person away to try again later. Once satisfied he has heard all he needs to, Bush tends to reach a decision largely on gut instinct. Seldom does he turn back.

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"He works things through quickly in his mind," said a close adviser and friend. "He can tell a good idea from a bad idea extremely well. He's not interested in the back-and-forth on issues."

Bush stands resolutely by the gravest decision of his presidency: to go to war in Iraq. The decision, made in the face of resistance from most U.S. allies, showed the brand of leadership Bush aspires to - bold, decisive, unshakable. Yet Iraq has also cost him sizable public support and would likely be the factor most mentioned by historians if he is unseated.

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As George W. Bush moves toward Election Day, there are plenty of policy moves and speeches voters will judge him by. But they will also take the measure of the man - what kind of person he is, how trustworthy, how comfortable he makes people. Americans have long based their choices not just on politics but also on character and other personal traits.

One tantalizing question is whether voters in November will embrace or reject Bush's style of decision-making, a style that seems to have no patience for self-doubt or second-guessing.

It's an approach many admire. Bush impressed Americans with the way he soothed the nation after Sept. 11. He strikes many as plain-spoken and authentic. Most voters see him as a man of strength who does not dither and does not engage in the politician's trick of speaking on both sides of an issue.

Yet even as they applaud his leadership, a majority also think Bush erred in deciding to invade Iraq based on intelligence that turned out to be wrong and starting a war that has killed nearly 1,000 Americans. How voters resolve that paradox will help determine whether Bush becomes a two-term president.

Americans may or may not know more personal sides of Bush. He loves his pickup truck and enjoys chopping underbrush on his ranch - never mind the sweat rolling off his face - for hours. When he occasionally puts on his chef's hat, his favorite creations are burgers and egg salad. When he orders from the White House menu, he typically asks for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Another culinary favorite is barbecue.

He has a ritual of bringing the morning newspapers and coffee to his wife in bed. He takes his dog, Barney, for walks (on the South Lawn) and loves hitting tennis balls for the dog to retrieve. At his Texas ranch, Barney accompanies Bush in the pickup en route to intelligence briefings.

Calls to friends

The president does not socialize much in Washington. But he fits in calls to friends in Texas and elsewhere. While leading meetings, he likes sucking on red-and-white peppermints.

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Bush, a Methodist, attends church often - at St. John's Episcopal Church across Lafayette Park from the White House, at a chapel at Camp David or in one of several places of worship in Crawford, Texas.

A former baseball team owner, he watches sports on television when he can. (He was watching an NFL playoff game alone in January 2002 when he briefly choked on a pretzel and went downstairs to find a White House nurse to examine him.)

Bush skims newspapers each morning and keeps up with the sports pages. He has been known to read Sports Illustrated at the White House. He once spotted an ad in that magazine that included a photo of him with Edward M. Kennedy, the liberal Democratic lion of the Senate. The next time Kennedy visited the White House, Bush toted the magazine like an eager fan and, according to people familiar with the meeting, asked Kennedy if he would be kind enough to autograph it for him.

Long addicted to exercise, the president had to quit running after he hurt his knee this year. He picked up mountain biking, riding on weekends at a Secret Service facility in Beltsville, Md., or on his ranch.

"When you ride a bike and you get your heart rate up and you're out, after 30 or 40 minutes your mind tends to expand; it tends to relax," Bush told a Texas reporter who was invited on a ride this summer.

Beyond his personal habits, the election will be largely a referendum on the decisions the president has made.

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On the campaign trail, he cultivates his image as a man with moral clarity who makes judgments based on what's right for America. He admonishes John Kerry for seeing shades of ambiguity in the war in Iraq, for suggesting that the decision on whether to back the war was a complicated one.

At rallies, Bush notes that "every incumbent who asks for the vote must answer a central question: Why? Why should the American people give me the great privilege of serving as your president for four more years?"

'Unusual president'

Marc Landy, a political science professor at Boston College and author of Presidential Greatness, described Bush as "a very unusual president."

"He's just shown this decisiveness - for better or for worse, because you can certainly argue over the substance," Landy said. "But he has shown an extraordinary willingness to put his administration and his political future on the line. He doesn't like to ruminate. But in our system of government, it's all about whether Americans trust him."

The president was in the midst of weighing his decision about war in Iraq in December 2002 when he queried his director of central intelligence at the time, George J. Tenet. Bush had just reviewed intelligence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. He seemed to harbor lingering doubts, according to an account in Bob Woodward's book Plan of Attack.

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"This is the best we've got?" Bush asked Tenet.

If Tenet knew Bush the way some aides do, he knew the president wanted a crisp reply.

"It's a slam-dunk case," Tenet said.

"How confident are you?" Bush asked.

"Don't worry. It's a slam dunk," Tenet said.

Bush recalled to Woodward that Tenet's terse reassurance was "very important." Three months later, Bush ordered an invasion that would erode his popularity and has him today clawing for re-election.

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George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M; University, said that "when George Tenet says, 'It's a slam dunk, Mr. President,' as far as the record shows, that was the end of it.

"That is an interesting incident in recent American history," Edwards said. "He had a question about whether there was compelling information, but he didn't persist. To the extent that this is reflective of his decision-making, there is a possible flaw. We went to war to solve a problem that didn't exist."

Being articulate in weighty policy debates is not necessarily a strength. Bush, like Ronald Reagan, scholars said, projects a distinctly American brand of appeal, rooted in the trust and comfort he engenders in Americans. When asked in polls, more people say they would rather have Bush than Kerry at the helm if the nation is ever attacked again.

Andrew Kohut, an independent pollster who leads the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, said that with Bush's poll numbers well off their highs, his personal appeal and image as a bold leader are "his lifeline to a second term."

Desire for results

His advisers, several of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, say that Bush, the first president to hold a graduate business degree, is driven by a desire to show concrete results.

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In 1993, when he was running for governor of Texas, his critics branded him as the son of a former president who had achieved little himself. Bush took a Texas reporter on a tour of the stadium being built for the Texas Rangers, the baseball team in which he held an ownership stake. "When all those people ... say, 'He ain't never done anything' - well, this is it," Bush said. While the Ballpark in Arlington was built largely with public funds, Bush was instrumental in pressing for the financing.

One adviser said the president misses the backslapping politics in Texas, where he found it easier to forge friendships with Democrats. In Washington, though, as in Texas, he tries to disarm people with a sometimes devilish wit.

As governor in 1997, he had a private meeting with Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, a curmudgeonly Democrat who was Bush's rival but a man who had developed a deep respect for the governor. In their meeting, according to a person familiar with it, Bullock screamed at Bush, "I'm going to [expletive] you on this bill."

Bush walked over to Bullock and said, "Well, if you're going to [expletive] me, you're gonna have to kiss me first." He then planted a wet one on the face of the stunned Bullock.

At the White House, Bush insists on formality. Young aides have been warned that the president wants to show how much he reveres the White House and that he wants anyone working for him to look polished.

Several months ago, the president chided a reporter for having his tie loosened and top shirt button undone in the Oval Office. Once, before a breakfast meeting at the White House with congressional leaders, he stopped Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, then the House Democratic leader, because Gephardt was not wearing his jacket.

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"You know the rules here - put your coat on," Bush said, as recounted by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in a book.

Gephardt at first thought Bush was joking but soon realized he wasn't. "Oh," Gephardt said, slipping on his jacket.

At day's end, aides say, Bush can be fussy and cranky, carping to senior aides about how he ran late or why an audience did not respond well to a speech. "I don't wait well," he acknowledged in his autobiography, A Charge To Keep.

Last year, on a visit to Indonesia, Bush violated the common protocol by which a host leader decides when to end a news conference. Alongside President Megawati Sukarnoputri, Bush tried to cut off the event with a "Thank you all very much." He then realized his gaffe.

"Unless you want to keep on answering questions," he said to the leader of Indonesia, who chuckled and said, "No."

Critics say Bush tunes out opinions that conflict with his own. Aides counter that Bush is determined to hear all points of view and meets often with people of varying perspectives. But several advisers concede that Bush often has his mind nearly made up when he consults others and has little patience for hashing out finer points.

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"It's like you've got five minutes with the CEO," one adviser said. "If you don't have an answer he wants you to have, if you're not crisp in the way you're bringing something to him, not clear where you're headed, not focused on the point, I don't say he's impatient, but you can tell he's not happy."

Toward the end of 2002, with Bush weighing whether to order an invasion of Iraq, the president sought out the views of his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and his longtime Texas friend and confidante Karen Hughes. He told Woodward, though, that he did not, in the final hours, ask for counsel from Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who had long urged caution on Iraq.

"I think we've got an environment where people feel free to express themselves," Bush told Woodward.

Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political scientist who has followed Bush's political career, said the president's decisions are "guided by intuition and his relationship with God."

He added: "Many of his decisions seem pre-ordained by ideological commitment, not based on a careful review of facts. His decisions are more instinctive, more intuitive, more ideologically driven."

When he is at the White House, after rising as early as 5:30 some mornings, he usually reaches the Oval Office before 7 a.m. to begin his briefings.

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Bush once said in a TV interview that the White House can make him feel claustrophobic. "I mean, it's a beautiful place," he said. "But I like to be with friends in an informal setting."

Getting away

For a man trying to extend his White House stay, Bush relishes getting away from it. He has spent about 40 percent of his term either at Camp David in the mountains of Maryland or at his Texas ranch. (Other presidents, such as Reagan, also relished time away from Washington.)

Aides say Bush spends time with friends in those locales, and finds more private time - for bike riding or chopping brush - than he can in Washington.

At his ranch, Bush gives tours to visitors. He impresses them by identifying many species of trees. He points out his favorite spots to sit alone and think. And he likes having space. "I can walk wherever I want to walk," he once said of the ranch. "I can't do that in Washington. I guess I could. I could walk around a circle."

Bush seems enamored of the wilds of central Texas. When he travels the world, he often seems less curious.

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On his first visit to Australia last year, he spent less than a day there, stopping only in the capital, Canberra. He could have ordered visits to the more cosmopolitan city of Sydney or other popular places, but, unlike some of his predecessors, Bush showed no desire for such jaunts.

But Buchanan, of the University of Texas, said that many voters have no need for a president consumed by world travel and policy minutiae.

After Sept. 11, he said, it was Bush's "plain-spokenness and authenticity that took root in people's minds." All over the country, and especially in the "red states" that voted for Bush in 2000, Buchanan said, the president comforted Americans.

"Bush is really the embodiment of the collection of values, outlooks and preferences of many of the people who live in those states," he said. "His likability numbers - I think, more than most presidents, he is benefiting from them."

Staying on the trail

So the president, who likes driving a pickup across Texas cow country, who recently made a show of eating a raw ear of corn at a stop in Iowa, will speak to his party's convention this week, pushing for a second term, arguing that his style of governing suits these threatening times.

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Bush tells voters that under his watch, the nation will never show "uncertainty or weakness." It's a resoluteness he seems to embrace in public and private.

This summer, while riding the mountain bike on his ranch, Bush came to a steep drop, with a sharp turn. He showed no sign of uncertainty. He boasted to a reporter riding with him: "I'm gonna show you a hill that would choke a mule."

On that hill, Bush hit some loose gravel and crashed, landing with his bike resting on his stomach. He seemed unfazed. "We've got thrills, spills, you name it," Bush said, before straightening his handle bars and riding on along the trail.


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