One day, son, all this could be yours

Why America expects to see another George Bush in the White House

In the film Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner hears a whispering voice in the cornfields of his farm. The voice lures him into action. "If you build it, they will come," it breathes. And so he builds a baseball field that becomes the focus of strange supernatural energies, drawing long-lost figures from the game's past, including the ghost of his father. The film closes with thousands trekking out to his farm, a symbol of reconciliation and community.

George W Bush, the Governor of Texas and son of the former president, has heard a similar voice. So he has quietly assembled in Austin the most formidable election campaign team in existence: fund-raisers, foreign policy advisers, nervous young men and women with clipboards to handle press conferences and policy seminars, old political hands from every state. And they are coming to see him, by the dozen. State and local politicians from all over the nation are flooding in to touch the hand of the man who is the most likely Republican candidate for the White House in 2000, and perhaps the next president of the United States.

Mr Bush badly needed them to come to him. He was re-elected Governor last year by a landslide. Unlike other Republican candidates, he has a job and cannot just up and run for New Hampshire or Iowa to start kissing babies. "I want to tell my friends outside of Texas, especially in the early primary states, I won't be able to visit until this summer," he said on Sunday, launching his Presidential Exploratory Committee. "First, I have a job to do in Texas."

But building the Field of Dreams in Austin has had plenty of other attractions. It has allowed him and his team to remain in control of the process. It has given the campaign an aura of mystery, of magic almost. And it has allowed him to continue to maintain that he has not quite decided yet on his candidacy, to keep "not running", even when everyone knows that the only thing that will stop a Bush campaign is an act of God.

The voice in the cornfields for Mr Bush belongs to Karl Rove, the political intelligence behind the campaign that isn't. Mr Bush himself is no political tyro, but Mr Rove, his key strategist, is regarded in the business as a genius. Around him and Mr Bush there is the most effective, broad and highly structured campaign organisation of the decade. The Bush 2000 campaign has brought in aides to other candidates, links to the religious right, money-men, consultants and lobbyists anxious to get on board and policy intellectuals from across the ideological spectrum of the right and centre. Whatever else you say about this man, you must admit he has planned and prepared to the last degree.

Outside Texas, Mr Bush has had little presence until the last six months, as it became clear that he would run and might win. We know his father, the preppy New Englander who came to Texas for business, won the White House and then lost it to Bill Clinton. But who exactly is George W Bush?

He is a Texan, far more than his father: he was educated here, worked in the oil business, bought into the Texas Rangers baseball team, stood for Congress, and won the Governor's Mansion. He has also spent more time in private business than his father, and less in public service. But like the Bush family in general, he is also very New England; he is old money, well-mannered, competitive and clean-limbed, and quite clearly he was born and bred for politics.

Most of those around him say he is not that psychologically complex; there is no great seeking after adulation, as sometimes seems to be the case with Bill Clinton. Nor is there a great hunger for power and control, as there was with Richard Nixon. He is, largely, what he seems: a decent, quite conservative man in his fifties with a happy marriage and two young daughters, who does politics for a living.

The fact that he is not a screwball does not mean, of course, that he is shallow or facile. He does not have the personal magnetism of Bill Clinton, which can electrify a room; nor does he have the flaws. And his most likely opponent in 2000 is Al Gore, who could not electrify a room if you plugged him into the mains.

Mr Bush has plenty of other strengths instead, and the campaign machine has drawn on them assiduously. He is genuinely inclusive, in the sense that he reaches out to sections of the population long ignored by the Republican right. On his Presidential Exploratory Committee there are three women (one black), one black man and one Hispanic: only half are white men in suits. He speaks freely about the need to open the party up, about opportunity for all. He is warm in public, and accessible. His political imagery is strikingly (and deliberately) similar to the optimistic language of Ronald Reagan - though this time it is the "sunshine side of the mountain" rather than "morning again in America". He refers - like every modern Republican - to the coalition that was built up by Reagan. He also speaks often of the "party of Lincoln". After the Civil War, it was the Republicans who drew support from the black community, and the Democrats who were seen as the party of segregation.

Bush is a classic conservative, talking often about culture and values, but also about social obligation and the need to help those at the bottom of the pile to help themselves. He has not taken part in the Republican assault on Bill Clinton for his private life, and does not want his opponents to mess with him or his family.

There have been rumours about his private life, and he has admitted that he once drank too much. This will not hurt him, especially not in Texas. What may are rumours of other activities. Asked if he had ever used "drugs, marijuana, cocaine", he replied: "It is irrelevant what I did 20 or 30 years ago. What's relevant is that I have learnt from any mistakes that I made."

Texas observers point out, however, that his private life has been very different from that of the current President. He was never part of the counter-cultural Sixties. His circle of friends is close and very discreet. Whatever he did, there are unlikely to be members of that circle hawking their stories to national newspapers.

But there are other problems in his future that must be taken into account. The first is himself. He has obvious flaws, despite his great skills at the retail politics of handshakes and back slaps and his evident competence as a governor. He is not a great speaker, sometimes appearing stiff and wooden. He also loses his temper sometimes.

The second is his own party. The Republicans have shown enormous talent over the last year for shooting themselves in the foot. Some of the other candidates will want to damage him, badly and early - and not just because he is the front-runner. "Compassionate conservativism" irritates those who think he is trying to outflank them by painting fellow conservatives as uncaring (which he is) and by aiming for the moderates in both parties (which he is). It reminds many of the "kinder, gentler America" promised by his father, which led indirectly to the party's loss of the White House after 18 years.

And the third problem, inevitably, will be comparisons with his father, who, though still very popular in parts of the party, is regarded by the conservative right as too liberal, and by much of working-class America as a stiff. Field of Dreams was a film about a man coming to terms with his father, and those who know George W say that one reason why he is running - and only one among many - is to recover his father's legacy from the man who beat him, Bill Clinton.

To do so, though, there is the pressing question that he must answer, which his father sometimes seemed to find hard to resolve. Why exactly does he want to be president? In 1980, his father beat Ronald Reagan in the Iowa caucuses, the first event in the nomination calendar, and became super-confident - over-confident as it turned out: he lost badly in New Hampshire, and never really recovered. "We did not answer the question of `George Why'?" said James Baker, the elder Bush's campaign manager.

America has largely stopped asking "George Which" and is now saying "George Wow!", or "George What?", or "George When?". At some time in the coming months, as the campaign really gets under way, the same question will be asked of him: why? After all, America, is rich and doing well: why switch horses in midstream - especially as it was his father who, after the long Reagan boom, presided over the Bush bust?

At the moment, he has most of the answers, but not quite all. "The purpose of prosperity is not merely material wealth," he says, and: "My concern is that this nation best be careful, or we're going to leave people behind." Some time in the next six months, he will have to come up with a better reason why America should once again entrust its future to the Bush family; and he will. But at the moment, sometimes it seems as though he himself is not quite sure.

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