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Published: Sunday, 7/30/2000

Is Bush Lite the sharpest tool in the shed?

George Bush the elder had a problem articulating the "vision thing" and relating to the commonplace. George the younger has a problem articulating - period - and relating to the complex. He is dogged not by the demons of style and substance that haunted his father, but by the nagging doubts that the son is not the sharpest tool in the shed. On the eve of the GOP's made-for-marketing affair in Philadelphia, George W. Bush struggles not with guns and butter issues but whether the country thinks he's smart enough to be president.

Safe to say, many, if not most, do not think Dubya has the brains to lead the battalion. Sure, the man is likable enough. He's not generally viewed as aloof and calculating as his Democratic rival. And he has his mother's knack for charming an audience with just a dash of mischief and a pinch of sincerity. The kind of guy you could have a beer with and shoot the bull. But president of the United States? Whew. That's another story.

If only Dubya could have been completely insulated from the press and public - the way Ronald Reagan was most of his presidency - he might have pulled it off. But the pampered scion began to believe his own press releases in the early going and became a bit overconfident in his abilities to think on his feet - or anywhere else.

If the cocky candidate had just played his cards close to the chest, those nagging doubts about his capacity to grasp the complicated wouldn't be attending his coronation. But flattered by all the attention and overnight homage to his candidacy, Dubya got carried away and stumbled badly over his jarring ignorance of people and places he should have known, or at least recognized, as a candidate for the highest office in the land. He was immediately branded a lightweight in the big-stakes game to win the presidency.

But by then the die was cast. The Republicans, desperate for direction and sense of purpose, piled on in support of Dubya without a second's thought. Literally. Details didn't matter. The once prodigal son of a former president had the pedigree that would propel him to party stardom. The blanks about Dubya could be filled in later. All that mattered was sticking to the script and staying on track. A candidate with a prominent name who could walk and talk the part without saying much was icing on the cake.

But as voters get wise to George Bush Lite, money, backing, and even a throwback veep may not be enough to push him past the concern about his leadership of the free world. Party leaders will do everything they can to soothe the skepticism of the masses, but it could all be over after the presidential debates. No matter how well rehearsals go, no matter how extensive the cheat sheets stacked at his podium, Dubya will be blown out of the water by Albert the Brainiac, a masterful debater.

Pity. The Grand Old Party wants to stand in the winner's circle so badly it refuses to admit it sold itself short on the means to get there. But privately, some party chieftains have to be losing sleep over what may befall Dubya when the gloves come off after the conventions. Up until now, their boy has been able to keep his distance, to demur responding to specifics whenever it suited him. But those days are numbered.

Increasingly, Dubya's worrisome shallowness and muted positions on core Republican issues will be fodder for political analysis and attack. Party members are circling the wagons under the Big Tent and twisting the arms of divergent special interest groups to fall into line behind Dubya without regard to his record or willingness to campaign on any particular plank. But in the end, the electorate will largely base its selection of the next president not on party or running mates, but on the one heading the ticket.

Tough luck, that. As the election season moves into its final stretch, everything Dubya does or says will be especially scrutinized for depth and accuracy. His choice for a running mate was meant to offer him some cover in the brains and experience departments but it could backfire. Dick Cheney's solid reputation as a thoughtful lawmaker and Republican administration loyalist could stand in too stark a contrast to the mediocre one of George W.'s.

Funny, his father had just the opposite problem with his running mate, but Dan Quayle was more an embarrassment than a serious political liability. Dubya's problem is himself. He planted the seeds of doubt about his leadership potential and they have taken root in the public consciousness. A fawning party, bushels of campaign money, entrenched organization, and a protective old guard might be able to erase the perception, but it won't be easy.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade editorial writer.



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