A kinder, gentler George Bush is the Republicans' lone star

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THE MASCOT of William B Travis Elementary School in Port Arthur is Tigger, the irrepressible tiger from the Winnie the Pooh books. Morris Lee, the school's principal, is something of a Tigger himself: a man who has taken an underperforming school and turned it into a star pupil, with some of the most outstanding scores for reading anywhere in Texas. He explodes with energy and enthusiasm for his pupils, his teachers and his school as he guides visitors around.

But on this hot autumn day, Mr Lee is being out-tiggered by his star guest. George W Bush, the Governor of Texas, is racing around his schoo, bursting into every classroom he can find. He hugs, he greets and he sits with the children, reading to them from The Very Hungry Caterpillar and telling them wonderful stories of his dogs and Ernie, the six-toed cat, which he found up a tree.

As the governor shakes off his handlers and shoots into another room, which was not on the scheduled trip, Mr Lee says: "He marches to his own drum."

One of the governor's staff explains: "He does what he likes, and we say, `Yes Sir'."

George W Bush, son of the former president, is clearly doing just what he likes today: meeting people, talking about his education plans, and chatting with the press. He will be re-elected as governor next month; the only doubt is whether he beats Garry Mauro, his Democratic challenger, by 30 or 50 percentage points. But it is what Mr Bush would like to do next that fascinates so many at the moment, and which has brought the national press to an elementary school in a small town on the Gulf of Texas.

Mr Bush, opinion polls show, is the strongest contender to take the Republican nomination for the presidency. The same polls show him beating Al Gore, the current Vice-President and the most likely Democrat to stand in 2000. But Mr Bush is reticent. "I haven't made up my mind one way or the other," he says in the school library.

He will decide after the election, after he has launched his programme for the next year, maybe in spring. Until then he wants to talk about Texas and about education. "Education is to a state what national defence is to a nation," he says. He talks excitedly of his plan to make sure every young Texan can read, of his admiration for Mr Lee and the staff, of the importance of literacy.

Mr Bush can certainly talk. He has none of the slightly angular elitism of his father. He is warmer, more direct, at ease in micro-politics, while his father's natural environment was the United Nations, the Central Intelligence Agency, the high tables of the world.

His eyes are his father's, but his manner reminds the casual observer more of his mother, Barbara Bush, whom he refers to several times. She was clearly a very important influence, and is also a political strength. While his father left a rather uncertain political legacy, his mother remains a deeply beloved national figure.

There is no doubt that if he wants to run, Mr Bush will not be lacking for money. He has outspent Mr Mauro 13-1, raising $16m (pounds 9.6m), and still has $6m in the bank. About a quarter of his funds came from outside Texas and, though he stopped trips outside the state two months ago, he made several visits across the nation. He has a network of friends, he has inherited many of his father's contacts and he is a successful businessman in his own right - he owns part of the Texas Rangers baseball team.

The governor has cited one concern above all others about standing: the impact on his family. His twin 16-year-old daughters "kind of like Texas", he says. And the Clinton saga has reminded him how much the families of presidents get drawn in to their political lives, coming under the same relentless scrutiny.

"I think running for President is a commitment to the bubble, and I've got to make up my mind at the right time if that's want I want to do," he says. "Is this something I want to put my family through?" He has been very careful in his comments on Mr Clinton, saying that "the process in Washington is a sullied process, and I take no joy in any of this going on".

The press has started to put rather a different interpretation on these legitimate fears. Mr Bush, by his own admission, had a wild youth. He was a fighter pilot with the National Guard in Texas in the late Sixties and early Seventies, and a young businessman living in Houston in the mid-70s. He very publicly gave up alcohol a few years back. The press has already been sniffing around his old friends, looking for dirt.