The Fight of His Life: George W. Bush Seemed to Have It All-A Famous Name, Cash and Anaura of Invincibility. Then Came John McCain, and Questions about the Front Runner's Smarts and Passion. the Inside Story of How Bush Did Whatever It Took to Survive

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Just before George W. Bush was re-elected governor of Texas in 1998, he sat with an old friend in the library of the governor's mansion in Austin, smoking cigars and talking about the future. The outcome of the Texas election was not in doubt, only the scale of the landslide. (Bush won with 68 percent of the vote.) "You are a cork on a raging river," said the friend. Republicans were sure to see that Bush was the right man to win back the White House. "They're going to come to you and you will have no choice," said the friend, his tone more matter-of-fact than breathless. "You're the franchise."

Bush did not argue. He, too, had seen the wave coming. Back in 1993, when he decided to run for governor, he had told his wife, Laura, that if he ran and won, and then won again, there would be enormous pressure on him to seek the presidency. But as the Republican moneymen began shuttling down to Austin in their corporate jets throughout 1999, anointing Bush with promises of financial support, "W" was not sure he really wanted to try for the White House. He had a good life in Austin: a strong and loving but publicity-shy wife; teenage twins he doted on; a dog to walk and trails to jog; an important job he liked and was good at. He tried not to show it, but he may have been anxious about reaching for the pinnacle once occupied by his father.

George W. Bush's campaign has been a family drama. Bush's devotion to his kin has at once hobbled and inspired him. His sometimes frantic efforts to live up to his father--and avenge the Old Man's defeat in 1992--have left many voters with an uneasy sensation. At times Bush seems to be riding on his father's coattails, at others trying too hard to prove himself. None of the family pressure on George W has been overt; on the contrary, his parents have bent over backward not to meddle. Yet one can almost feel the burden of legacy on the man chosen by the Republican establishment to restore the GOP to the office his father lost. Bush wanted to do it his way, with high-minded appeals ("I'm a uniter, not a divider"). Faced with defeat, however, he felt compelled to go back to the hardball tactics his father had used to come back from the brink in 1988.

Bush's cockiness--and his smirk--masks a streak of insecurity. In the Bush family, brother Jeb--not George W--was long seen as the true politician, the best chance to redeem the Bush family reputation as winners. George W's political ascendancy was partly an accident: Jeb came up just short in his first try to become governor of Florida, while George W had the good luck to run as a Republican against a liberal in a very conservative state. The eldest son had long been a restless soul. Growing up, George W mixed lazy playfulness with bursts of manic energy. At Yale, his roommate Roland Betts recalled, there were "coasters" and "grinds." Bush was an "aggressive coaster" who would razz Betts about studying. Only when exams were almost upon him would Bush make a mad dash for the library. George W's approach to winning the Republican nomination has followed a similar pattern. For months Bush coasted, trying to get by on the political equivalent of a gentleman's C. Only when faced with the prospect of flunking has Bush gone all out.

Last September Bush repeatedly told a NEWSWEEK reporter, who hadn't asked, "I'm ready." But he wasn't, not for prime time. True, he had a $60 million-plus war chest and the backing of the Republican establishment, but he lacked some of the particular skills of presidential primary campaigning, notably debating on TV. Bush had needed to debate only once in his shoo-in 1998 campaign for governor, and he had agreed to do it on a Friday night, when many Texans are more interested in high-school football games. Following the conventional wisdom that front runners should not dignify their opponents with a stage, Karl Rove, Bush's longtime top adviser, had decided that Bush should not enter any debate in 1999. …