Return of the Charm Offensive

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On the day after Super Tuesday, a ghost of politics past materialized in Los Angeles: George W. Bush the Candidate. This is a different guy from George W. Bush the President, whose rotating personae—resolute defender of freedom, deer in the headlights, jaunty flyboy—haven't been nearly as engaging as the low-key fellow who campaigned in 2000. Bush the Candidate is charming, plainspoken and humble. He rarely raises his voice; he never orates; he always drops his gs. It is hard to imagine a politician more different from John Kerry, who has dominated the past few months with equine dignity but without really ingratiating himself.

Bush the Candidate made his 2004 debut privately when he called Kerry to congratulate him on his Super Tuesday victory. This display of old-fashioned manners reminded me of the evening in October 2000 when Bush and Al Gore competed head-to-head at the New York Archdiocese's Al Smith dinner. A brief, humorous speech was called for—and Bush smoked Gore, making most of the jokes at his own expense. Gore was funny too, but less gracious. Bush won the evening when he said, "My opponent and I have had some strong differences, but let me tell you a few things I've learned in this campaign ... He's a person of energy and skill and determination. Mr. Vice President, I can't wish you success, but I do wish you well."

Another of Bush the Candidate's winning traits: he talks an awful lot about poor people. In Los Angeles, the President's first appearance was at a conference sponsored by his Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. This was supposed to be one of Bush's signature programs—a happy commingling of religion and compassion—but it's been lost in the welter of war, tax cuts and cultural pandering to the religious right. The first director of the office, John DiIulio, resigned in frustration. But DiIulio always believed the President was sincere in his commitment to faith-based antipoverty programs and, as Bush spoke last week—informally, skimming his text—it was almost possible to forget his sorry record, although the rhetoric was often shameless.

"We're talking about healing our nation," he began. "We're not talking about politics. We're all here to do everything in our power to save lives ... I'm here to thank you for hearing that call. Actually, I shouldn't be thanking you, I should be thanking a Higher Power for giving you the call." This evoked amens from the predominantly black and Hispanic audience, as did Bush's introduction of John Baker, founder of a faith-based treatment program: "Big John is with us ... He and I shared something in common ... We used to drink too much." And cheers and laughter when he later explained the rules for funding such programs: "You can't use federal money to proselytize ... You can't, if you're a faith-based organization, say, 'Only Methodists allowed' ... You can say, 'All drunks are welcome.'"

The President showed a more political but no less effective side at his next stop, a fund raiser in downtown Los Angeles. It was his first opportunity to challenge Kerry directly, and he did so in a cascade of simple sentences: "My opponent has plans for those tax cuts. He wants to take them away. And he will use that money to expand the Federal Government." Then, on foreign policy: "My opponent admits that Saddam Hussein was a threat. He just didn't support my decision to remove Saddam from power. Maybe he was hoping Saddam would lose the election in Iraq." This is powerful stuff. Kerry's counterarguments are, of necessity, more complicated. He is in favor of Bush's middle-class tax cuts, just not the benefits for people with an income of more than $200,000. As for the war, Kerry has been trying, with varying degrees of success, to explain his position for the past year. His prolixity will seem even more tortured against a candidate as artfully simple as the President.

It was easy to give Bush the benefit of the doubt in 2000. His compassion was convincing. His proposed tax cuts seemed more plausible, given the Clinton budget surplus. His foreign-policy nostrums seemed harmless before Sept. 11, 2001. But this year Bush the Candidate faces a difficult shadow opponent: Bush the President. The sleek stump speech hasn't yet been tested with audiences who are not $2,000 donors—audiences concerned, perhaps, about the favors that have gone to the President's not-so-compassionate wealthy contributors. Bush the President will have to defend his gaudy budget deficits. He will have to defend a questionable war that may have created more terrorists and greater threats than it has eliminated.

He will also face a feistier Democratic Party—which last week succeeded in tarnishing the President's rather innocuous attempt to use images from Sept. 11 in his first campaign ads. The 2000 election was close but not particularly intense. This year will be different. It will be interesting to see if the President can sustain his charm under pressure.