Richard Reeves

May I Trouble You, W?

WASHINGTON -- The consensus of "political observers," reporters and the few other people who had to watch the Republican candidates for president debate in Iowa last Monday night, was that George W. Bush performed much better than he had in earlier attempts in New Hampshire and Arizona. I am not part of the consensus.

As a matter of fact, I was shocked by how bad he and most of his peer group looked and sounded. Judging by the MSNBC debate, Al Gore and Bill Bradley would knock Bush out of the park. I would say the same for most of the others, too -- though it is not Bush's fault that three stooges, Alan Keyes, Gary Bauer and Steve Forbes, are running in his party.

They all looked pretty small to me -- figuratively and literally. I watched the show on a computer in the offices of The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee, because the local cable operator does not provide MSNBC. The candidates and their questioners -- Tom Brokaw of NBC News and John Bachman of WHO-TV in Des Moines -- were about 2 inches high and moved in the jerky digital way we are all getting used to.

But watching a smoother video and reading the transcript the next day, I confirmed my first impression that only Orrin Hatch and John McCain came across as grown-ups that night -- though each of them sounded ditzy on occasion. I am not a particular fan of Hatch's -- too smarmy for me -- but he is smart and does know what he's talking about. There is an advantage to being a Washington insider when the subject is the business of Washington.

Hatch also sits up straight. Bush's posture, which was praised by those other observers as relaxed, was all too familiar to anyone who spends time in a classroom. It is the above-it-all slouch of the wise guy, ready with a side-of-the mouth joke.

Bush likes to tell jokes. In more normal circumstances, he seems comfortable in his own skin, which makes him a very appealing fellow. But I am not sure he is going to make such an appealing candidate unless he straightens up and hits the books. From the first question on, he seemed to be focus-group prepped to use two words as often as possible: "heart" and "conservative."

"There is a problem with heart in America," he began. "One of the great frustrations in being a governor is I wish I knew of a law that would make people love one another, because I'd sign it."

"The hearts and souls of decent Americans ..." he continued. "You see, that's where the greatness of America lies; it doesn't lie in the halls of government."

That's nice, governor. But then why are you hanging around those halls?

He's not big on sentences, so he repeats phrases. On the subject of ethanol, the development of which has cost the government billions of dollars over the past 20 years, much of it in Iowa, Bush offered these thoughts:

"I support ethanol because it's good for our air. It's good for the air. It's good for the quality of the air. ... And if I'm president I'm going to spend money on research and development to find additional uses for agricultural products. ... We ought to spend money. We ought to spend ... we ought to spend money. ... Who knows? Maybe someday we will be driving automobiles with -- with 100 percent corn product. And guess what? We can grow it right here in Iowa."

Even in Iowa, they didn't applaud that line. What they usually applauded, in fact, were mentions of God or Christ -- there were 17 of them. When he was asked what political philosopher had the most influence on him, Bush answered, "Christ. Because he changed my heart."

It did sound a bit like Sunday school for a while. Or an observer might have thought the Democratic candidate will be Christine Whitman, the Republican governor of New Jersey. The boys kept attacking her because she is not pro-life enough for them.

Most of the dozen or so newspaper accounts I read the next day focused on Bush and McCain, the supposed front-runners. I did not see a single mention of Hatch beyond group photo captions. I had wondered myself why the senator from Utah was running, but now I suspect he may know something the rest of us don't. Maybe he has a gut feeling that Bush will deflate and McCain self-destruct when more people pay attention. Then: Why not me? Last man standing.

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