PHILADELPHIA - Now that he is officially the GOP presidential nominee, George W. Bush must: A) Give the speech of his life tonight as he addresses the convention and, more importantly, the nation and the world via television; B) Walk out, read his speech, and avoid falling off the stage.
Expectations are mixed for the 54-year-old Texas governor, who is the son of the 41st U. S. president. He has been in the oil business and an owner of Major League Baseball's Texas Rangers - a $606,000 investment that he sold for $15 million. He once had a reputation as a Good Time Charlie.
As many as a fourth of voters in the Nov. 7 election will make up their minds about whom they want as the next president based on the GOP convention and the Democrats' meeting in Los Angeles on Aug. 14 to 17.
Political consultant and pollster John Zogby says that Governor Bush has such a high personal favorability rating with the public that he will survive a bad speech and basically just has to avoid toppling into the orchestra pit.
Bush campaign manager Karl Rove says that Mr. Bush's positives outweigh his negatives by 32 per cent. "I've never seen that at this point in a presidential race.''
But outsiders, such as The Economist, a British magazine, think Governor Bush has to "wow" a lot of people. "He reads his speeches as if his voice and his brain were operating independently of one another,'' the magazine complained. "Like his father, he pauses in the wrong places and mangles phrases. 'Exemplary' comes out as 'exemplarary.' 'Tactical' nuclear weapons [are] 'tacular' weapons. In extemporary speech, he produces such gems as, 'We ought to make the pie higher.' ''
Off-the-cuff remarks are one thing. But every syllable of tonight's speech has been painstakingly parsed. In his many practice sessions Mr. Bush has worked again and again on proper pronunciation and smooth delivery.
The primary message Governor Bush says he wants to get across tonight before 150,000 balloons drop is one of optimism. "I'm an optimist,'' he says repeatedly. All the research the highly revved-up Bush campaign squad has garnered shows that Americans are not angry this election and don't want a mean or vindictive GOP candidate. Mr. Bush's "reformer-with-results'' and "compassionate conservatism'' campaign slogan was chosen for this reason.
Governor Bush promised yesterday that his speech "will make you proud.'' He will focus on education, tax cuts, Social Security, strengthening the military, limiting government, and "faith-based" substitutes for government aid for social programs.
He will criticize President Clinton and Vice President Gore only obliquely, as he did yesterday.
"I feel America is ready for change,'' he told Republicans at a fund-raiser. (The Bush campaign has raised a political war chest of $93 million.) Americans, he said, don't want four more years of Clinton-Gore.
Mr. Bush's advisers say privately that his most important job tonight is to show that his well-known affability and charisma are backed by substance and readiness to be president.
But there will be no more specifics than in earlier speeches. Details breed controversy. Pleasing generalities, such as "the soft bigotry of low expectations'' have served Governor Bush well so far and will continue, aides say.
Despite the uniform cheerfulness at this minutely choreographed convention that has no other purpose than to showcase Mr. Bush, the No. 1 concern about the governor among Republicans, as well as Democrats and independents, is whether he is ready for prime time.
The elder statesmen of the party such as Bob Dole and Bill Bennett say they were pleased with Mr. Bush's selection of Dick Cheney as his No. 2 because of Mr. Cheney's experience as chief of staff under former President Ford, his foreign policy knowledge acquired when he was defense secretary, and the seasoning he received in the oil supply business.
Mr. Bennett argues that "the people don't like it that the Oval Office has turned into a massage parlor'' and thinks just the image of a clean-cut Mr. Bush and a rock-solid Mr. Cheney on the stage together will be reassuring.
But some party elders concede that Mr. Cheney is a reluctant, rusty campaigner still not comfortable with pressing the flesh and being pinned down on the significance of conservative votes he cast as a congressman two decades ago.
Also, the Bush campaign is figuring out that now that his old rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain, has publicly donned the hair shirt of defeat, his presence by Mr. Bush's side conveys new "gravitas" - the word of the month - on the candidate.
Previewing his speech yesterday, Governor Bush said he wants to tell America that "the future will be better under a Bush-Cheney administration.''
Ready to pitch into talk-mode, like a boxer ready for the ring, Governor Bush exulted, "A crowd this big makes me want to go through the entire speech.''
He barely restrained himself but instead plunged into his new mantra: "If all goes well, if all goes well, you're looking at the next president of the United States.''
A spokesman for the Gore campaign chuckled. "We don't think so. And we think that the more Bush talks, the less America will listen.''