A Little Relief for George

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Surrounded by New York's finest, George W. Bush is all smiles

It's been more than six weeks — the political equivalent of an eternity —since the Bush campaign managed to string together four good days in a row. In a first since the night Al Gore locked lips with his wife on stage in Los Angeles, George W. Bush is actually having a better week than his opponent. The earliest sign that the pendulum that has recently swung so far in Gore's favor might be swinging back toward Bush came on Monday, when communications director Karen Hughes strode purposefully down the aisle of the Bush campaign plane to tell reporters about a story published that morning in the Boston Globe. The story —about Gore's dog, his mother-in-law and his penchant to stretch the truth — was the kind of break Bush hasn't been getting lately. It put the Gore campaign on the defensive throughout the week, allowing Bush the luxury of focusing on a segment of voters he's been turning off lately: middle-class women.

And so while Gore was defending himself against accusations that he's a pathological exaggerator, Bush took his campaign to the fertile valley of daytime television. First it was to Oprah, where Gore had performed so well the week before. Bush aides were so nervous about the appearance that they were telephoning each other madly the night before stressing over key issues like.... whether Bush should give Oprah a package of her favorite cookies. Warming up Oprah was key, the Bush team knew, because the famous talk show host had long telegraphed her personal preference for Gore. The big fear: that whatever Bush did would be dismissed by Oprah as shameless sucking up. In the end, Bush and company decided that he should plant a big kiss on Oprah's cheek when he walked on stage.

It worked. The whole show worked, as Bush outdid himself with well-timed humor and compelling stories about his love for his wife, Laura, and their two daughters. Oprah even seemed charmed. "I can exhale now," said an ecstatic Bush aide when it was over. "There's no way that doesn't help us with women." The Bush campaign was so happy, and relieved, at the Oprah gig's success that Hughes couldn't wait to announce to the traveling press corps what it already knew —that Bush's performance was a home run. And then Hughes declared that viewers from "all over the country" had been calling the Bush campaign to praise the governor's perfomance. The only problem: when Hughes spoke, the Oprah show had yet to air anywhere in the country except Chicago. (Another Bush aide rushed back to the press filing center to correct the mistake.)

Bush was so pleased with his own performance that his mood was noticeably lighter when he climbed aboard his campaign plane Tuesday evening. We could see him joking with aides in the front of the plane; he also came back to chat — off the record — with journalists. As the week wore on, the dynamic held: Gore continued to combat questions about his veracity, while Bush raced around the Midwest and Florida looking to shore up his stand in must-win states. He even went back to the daytime television well with an appearance on Regis Philbin's show Thursday morning. The verdict from one road-weary Bush campaign aide: "One more day and we win the week!"