Why Americans would rather have a rookie than a bore for president

Mr Bush may be less diligent in his studies than Mr Gore, but he is neither stupid nor slow'

First it was just ripples that lapped these American shores: gentle transatlantic enquiries about the likelihood, doubtless remote, of George W Bush becoming the next US president. Now, with all the set pieces of the campaign over - the primaries, the conventions and the debates - those ripples have become a positive tidal wave of Anglo-American incomprehension. How can it be, you ask, that someone so patently ignorant, inarticulate and unqualified is even in with a chance?

First it was just ripples that lapped these American shores: gentle transatlantic enquiries about the likelihood, doubtless remote, of George W Bush becoming the next US president. Now, with all the set pieces of the campaign over - the primaries, the conventions and the debates - those ripples have become a positive tidal wave of Anglo-American incomprehension. How can it be, you ask, that someone so patently ignorant, inarticulate and unqualified is even in with a chance?

Well, more than a chance, actually. Mr Bush has now edged ahead of Al Gore in all major polls. States that seemed safely committed to the Vice-President just a couple of weeks ago are now in contention. And while nothing can be assumed in so close a campaign, the one-and-a-half term Governor of Texas is more than holding his own against one of the most experienced and qualified politicians in America. He could be elected.

To anyone who watched, and scored, the presidential debates as a contest of policy and substance, such a prospect is doubtless incredible. So it must be also to anyone whose only impression of Mr Bush comes from the abundance of mispronunciations, malapropisms, and outright mistakes that have drawn so much scorn. But America is not electing a champion debater, nor yet a quiz master - it has plenty of other awards for such people. It is electing a president, and other criteria apply.

True, Mr Bush mangles his words, seems vague on geography and can appear "fuzzy" - to use his word - on the maths. And there were times in the three televised debates, especially the last, where he seemed at times erased from the picture by the dominant Mr Gore. But he has two signal qualities that Americans value and that his opponent just as signally lacks: charm and consistency.

In their direct encounters, Mr Bush habitually parried his opponent's attacks with self-deprecating humour - which also helped disguise the fact that he was deflecting the question. When a female questioner searched in vain for her glasses, Mr Bush offered her his with a smile. He sums up and connects with his audiences in a way that eludes Mr Gore.

Mr Bush may sometimes appear trained - and his delivery and command of policy (give or take a few lapses) have improved immeasurably over the months - but Mr Gore gives the impression of acting, often over-acting, his part. The only time he has approached the natural directness of Bush was in the month after the party convention in August, but he lost the knack before the first debate.

Where Mr Gore seems even now in perpetual search of his style, down to suits and hairstyle, Mr Bush has stuck to his uniform of dark suit and tie from the start - with casuals reserved for his ranch at weekends. And while Mr Bush has adjusted his message and catchphrases, much of the content is the same as it was in his stump speech more than a year ago: across the board tax cuts, limited privatisation of the pension system, and monitoring of school standards. Nor is Mr Gore's extensive experience of high office quite the trump card it may seem. Americans are more open than most Europeans to giving the "rookie" a chance; but they also know that those who went to the White House with least experience left office as some of the most distinguished.

A minority of American voters may still believe that Mr Bush is "too dumb" to be president. But the campaign has shown something different: his command of detail may lag far behind Mr Gore's, but his ability to generalise and cut through to principle is perhaps sharper than the Vice-President's - as is his wit. Mr Bush may be less diligent in his studies, but he is neither stupid nor slow.

Among his broad principles, Mr Bush also carries several that have appeal in America across party lines. His contempt for "Washington", his dismissal of "big government" and his argument that the projected budget surplus is proof that individuals pay too much tax are all staples of Middle America - and the more that Mr Gore moves towards to the political left, the more that Mr Bush can play them to his advantage.

Of the very many voters who share such views, only some will either notice or care about Mr Bush's mispronunciations or vagueness about "abroad". To many they are already just foibles, even endearing foibles, which do not obscure the fact that - in their view - the Governor's heart is in the right place. And while some of these same people believe that presidents should be strong and dominant, as Mr Gore was during two of the three debates, a good many believe that presidents, like other people, should not only work hard but play by the rules. They found Mr Gore's manner uncivil and aggressive and questioned how well such manners equipped him for dealing either with Congress or with foreign leaders. To them, Mr Bush's claim to be a "uniter not a divider" is a welcome alternative.

It has frequently been said during the campaign that Mr Bush and Mr Gore offer two sides of Bill Clinton: Mr Bush has much of the charm and political sensitivity, while Mr Gore has the command of the issues, and that the voters have to make up their mind which they want. One reason why the race is so close, and why so many people have yet to make up their mind, may be precisely because they really want both.

For me, if I had a vote, the choice would be clear. George Bush disqualifies himself on policies alone. He predicates too much on the booming economy and the most optimistic budget forecasts. His tax cuts give most to those who need it least; he plans to reduce the iniquitous price of prescription medicine by subsidising the already well-padded pharmaceutical companies. And he opposes abortion rights.

But there is much about Bush that is preferable, including his relaxed and cheerful demeanour. He seems more spontaneous, less encumbered and better grounded than Gore, despite the occasional flicker of the privileged "fraternity" boy. For American voters who are contemptuous of "Washington" and believe that government - of any complexion - does more harm than good and dislike Mr Gore, Mr Bush is their man. How big this coalition is will decide the result.

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