Not only is George W. Bush going back to the drawing board rather late in the campaign, he's also starting to think out loud. "I've got to get out and talk to people, and I'm going to do a lot of it," Bush told workers in a Pennsylvania factory Thursday, unveiling a new campaign slogan ("Real plans for real people") and some new campaign plans. This thinking out loud occasioned, no doubt, by some signs of mild panic in Republican ranks over the fact that Al Gore appears to have not only reeled in the Texas governor's lead, but even to have overtaken him in the polls since before Labor Day is even worse when he's talking to journalists. "I'd like to be able to be with people more often in less formal settings," Bush told reporters traveling with him in Detroit, the L.A. Times reported Friday. "It's a better picture." Memo to the Bush campaign: The idea that the value of "real people" is to make a "better picture" is not the sort of thing your candidate ought to be publicly sharing. Not surprisingly, Bush has also said he'll probably curb his habit of chatting with reporters traveling on his plane, saying these conversations did little to show the voting public his ability to communicate with "real people." To be sure, the Bush campaign can be forgiven for recognizing that chatting to the hacks has done very little to help the governor's quest for that "better picture."
As part of his retooling for the homestretch, the candidate who six weeks ago held a 12-point lead over the vice president is now insisting he's the "underdog." While it may demand an improbable elasticity of the imagination to picture the son of a former president as Oliver Twist, Bush may be motivated in part by the looming debating season. "This guy is a very good debater," the governor said of his opponent Thursday. "I hope I'll be able to hold my own." Americans may well feel sympathy for anyone forced to debate against wonkish Al Gore, but that won't help Bush beat the veep. Swing voters who're not yet convinced to vote for Bush aren't worried about his affability; they want to see him lay to rest the impression that he may be a lightweight not equal to the task. Forewarning voters that he expects to struggle in debates against the vice president may send the wrong message to the unconvinced.
But Bush's most immediate problem may be the increasingly public grumbling among senior Republicans over the state of the campaign. If long-time GOP strategists keep on alerting the media to their doubts over the governor's strategies, they may hurt the governor's ability to raise all-important campaign funds. After all, many corporate donors view their big-ticket donations as an investment an investment that only pays dividends if the candidate wins.