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Jewish World Review Sept. 15 , 2000 / 14 Elul, 5760

Roger Simon

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What Bush has learned -- A REMARKABLE calm radiates from George Bush as he cuts into the cotton wool pancakes the flight attendant has just brought him.

His lead in the polls has evaporated. His running mate appears to have all the animal magnetism of a flounder. And the candidate has used a schoolyard vulgarity to refer to a reporter for the most influential newspaper in America while at the same time promising to elevate the "tone" of Washington and restore "dignity" to the Oval Office.

But George W. Bush is unfazed, unflustered and unworried. His head is on straight, and his keel is even.

He halts a forkful of pancake midway to his mouth. "I am a disciplined and focused and patient candidate right now because I believe that people are going to come my way," he tells me. "After it's all said and done, after all the polls and surges and ads and the debate on the debates and all that, they'll come my way."

Polls are only imperfect snapshots of what the American people are feeling at any moment, but they can have enormous influence.

Good polls also inoculate candidates against news media attention to their gaffes, missteps and bobbles.

Last Wednesday, Gore threw batting practice pitches with the Detroit Tigers and hit first baseman Robert Fick on the leg. A few months ago, this would have been portrayed as yet another example of how nothing was going right for the "hapless" Gore. Now, with Gore up in the polls, the media laughed it off.

The media are not laughing about Bush. The stories about Bush are filled with ads featuring the subliminal use of the word "RATS" and whether he is dyslexic or not.

There is also a very ominous sign for the Bush campaign: their own people are attacking the Bush campaign. Last week, an unidentified "Washington-based adviser to the Bush campaign" told The New York Times, "Today, I think anybody forced to wager on the race would have to bet on Gore." This was followed the next day by a "high-ranking" Republican official blasting Bush's campaign team in Austin, Texas, for arrogance and stupidity.

In my interview with him, however, Bush said he was sticking with the Texans who brung him to the dance. "Our team is solid," he said. "Nothing will change. These are friends of mine. They're warriors. They're smart people. This is our team. I'm as loyal to them as they are to me, and we're going to win together."

But Bush knows he has hit a bad spell. It got really bad on Labor Day in DuPage County, Ill., the most Republican county in the state, where the crowd was large and welcoming.

Standing on the stage with Cheney, a local marching band blasting "The Washington Post March" in his ears, Bush leaned over to his running mate and said, "There's Adam Clymer, major-league a-hole from The New York Times." Bush made the comment not so much because he thought Clymer's coverage of him had been unfair but because he thought a recent story had been unfair to Cheney. Fierce loyalty is one of Bush's hallmarks, and he was trying to buoy Cheney's spirits.

But the microphones on the lectern were live, and both the crowd and the press heard the off-color remark. Bush was unaware of this until he finished his speech and lined up with Cheney in the middle of the street to begin a mile-and-a-half parade.

Karen Hughes, his communications director, whispered in his ear that his remark had been heard by the media. Bush then whispered this to Cheney, and the two men stepped off down the street. But Bush was visibly upset.

While aides walked down both sides of the street holding a rope that Bush was supposed to lean over to shake hands with people, he instead stayed on the center stripe shaking no hands, not even when the parade made temporary stops.

He just stood about 8 feet behind a truck carrying photographers and reporters, smiling into the cameras for block after block. The people reached out their hands and called out his name, but Bush would not go over to them.

Clearly, something had to be done, and the next day the campaign did it: Laura Bush was jetted out of Austin and to her husband's side. "Finally my wife caught up with me on the campaign trail," Bush said the next morning. "I feel like a better candidate when Laura is with me."

The change was noticeable. As Bush ate his pancake breakfast on the flight from Scranton, Pa., to Milwaukee, Laura sat across the aisle from him, quietly reading a newspaper.

On that flight, I asked Bush how the campaign had changed him. "Well, it's made me in some ways tougher," he replied. "The process has steeled me, and I'm a better candidate for that."

He'd better be. Because in the end, victory or defeat will not be determined by staffs or strategies. It will be determined by the candidates and how well they sell their messages, their plans, themselves.

And it will be up to George W. to determine whether his campaign will be remembered for creating a Bush dynasty or for being bush league.

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