Bush goes on his first date with voters

IN CONVENTIONAL warfare, overwhelming force wins. But in guerrilla warfare, more lightly armed combatants can triumph by drawing their opponents into small engagements, turning their strength against them and gradually grinding them down.

Those are the enemies that lie in wait for George W Bush as he sets out on the campaign trail this weekend, beginning the long journey that could lead to his selection as Republican candidate for President. The Governor of Texas is the big favourite. He has huge funds, staff in every state, an army of money men, admen, press advisers, strategists and pollsters, smart young women with cellular phones and young men with clipboards. He also has a handsome poll lead - handsome indeed for a man who has not definitively said that he will run and who has so far confined himself to private meetings in the Governor's Mansion in downtown Austin.

Now he must take his case out to the world, or at least to Iowa and New Hampshire. Those states kick off the electoral calendar next year. He must win there if he is to have a shot at the White House.

Seven of the Republican candidates will be in Iowa this week, most of them gravitating to the World Pork Expo in Des Moines. Before he can get elected to the White House, Mr Bush must beat the other Republican candidates, and he is already under fire. Dan Quayle, the former Vice- President, is one of several Republicans who believe that Mr Bush can be outflanked on his ideological right. In the past few weeks Mr Quayle has repeatedly raised conservative social issues with the aim of drawing Mr Bush.

The Texas Governor has been slow to express his positions on these social issues, with good reason. This is not the time for a detailed list of policy prescriptions. "It's like a first date," says Tom Korologos, a Republican consultant who is a supporter of Mr Bush's rival, Elizabeth Dole. The voters will want to size him up, but not make final judgements.

Mr Quayle, best known for his imaginative mangling of the English language, may not seem the most likely challenger. But he has support on the conservative right, and his strategy is a taste of what Mr Bush will get over the next few weeks. Conservatives will try to draw him into small battles on these big issues. The billionaire Steve Forbes, Senator Bob Smith, the religious leader Gary Bauer, Mr Quayle, the maverick nationalist Pat Buchanan, the former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander and the talk show host Alan Keyes are all seeking the vote of the right, and if they can score small victories now it could have big results later.

The polls show Mr Bush with a wide lead over his opponents in Iowa. A polling initiative, Iowa Project 2000, found 36.7 per cent of likely Iowa Republicans backing him in March, with 16.4 per cent behind Elizabeth Dole and roughly 8 per cent each for Messrs Quayle, Buchanan and Alexander. It looks as if the race is for second and third place.

Only one of Mr Bush's rivals can probably emerge as the standard-bearer of the right. His massive and highly efficient fund-raising performance is siphoning away cash, leaving some on very shaky financial ground. Mr Quayle is already under pressure: next month the Republican leadership in his home state, Indiana, will hold a massive fund-raiser - for Mr Bush. Mr Alexander is running so short of funds that he has laid off some staff, and is pinning all his hopes on a good performance in Iowa.

Mr Quayle is using the number of party endorsements that Mr Bush has received as a weapon against him. "We cannot follow the campaign strategy of the party establishment in Washington any more than we can be guided by the moral leadership offered by the Clinton administration," he said in a recent campaign speech. The Bush name will also be turned against George W, drawing on conservative dislike of his father, the former President.

Mr Bush needs to build and keep a coalition of voters from right and centre. His ideology is built around the idea of "compassionate conservat-ism". He will sketch some broad outlines in his Iowa speeches this weekend.

But the conservatives want the primaries to be about ideology and clear choices. And Mr Bush's rivals will hope that the "first date" metaphor works. "Most first dates don't live up to expectations," said David Kochel, Mr Alexander's campaign manager.