This Bush Doesn't Appear to Burn With Ambition

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How badly does George W. Bush want to be president? The GOP nominee strode the campaign trail Monday for the first time since a handful of national polls showed the race between him and Al Gore tightening into a dead heat in the wake of last week's Democratic convention in Los Angeles. Bush's aides had long predicted that Gore's post-convention "bounce" in the polls would catapult the Democrat from his near-permanent position behind Bush into a tie or even a lead in the polls, but the fact that their predictions came true has had a sobering effect on the campaign. On the flight from Austin, Tex., to Milwaukee, Wis., this morning, Bush was unusually subdued. Asked about the polls in as many different ways as reporters could concoct, Bush said again and again that "this is gonna be a close race," or, "I've always known this was gonna be a close race."

But what was most striking was the way Bush suggested that the outcome of the race was beyond his control. "These polls are gonna go up and down," he said. "I like my chances. But we've got a lotta work to do.... This is gonna be a close race." Reminded that Gore has been positioning himself as a champion of the people, Bush was asked if he didn't feel he should claim that mantle himself. "The only thing I know to do is to tell people what I believe, share my vision, campaign hard, and I trust the judgment of the people," Bush said. "I do. And I don't have to keep reinventing myself for every turn in this campaign." He seemed to be giving himself a pep talk a moment later when he added, "Just be the same person, and if people like it, great. And if they don't, this is what happens in the democratic process."

Bush repeated that fatalistic assessment of the election outcome later today at a primary school event in Des Moines, Iowa. Asked what it feels like to run for president, Bush at first said, "It's really exciting" and "It's a lot of work." At the end of his answer, however, he added, "I don't know whether I'm gonna win or not. I think I am. If I do, I'm ready for the job. And if not, that's just the way it goes." Just the way it goes? Before we read too much into Bush's nonchalance, it should be noted that the questioner was a 10-year-old girl. But Bush has always presented a kind of take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward the presidency. Partly that's just the result of a good WASP upbringing, which teaches young men and women of a certain background that it's unbecoming to appear too ambitious, to want something — especially a job — too much. But it may also be a reflection of something else in Bush's nature, the fact that he has never wanted for anything in his life or experienced (except for a congressional race in 1978) the consequences of failure. There's something refreshing about a presidential candidate whose ambition for the job doesn't ooze from every pore. But ambivalence about the job is an odd quality in a man who is asking to be the leader of the free world.