Magazine article Newsweek

Face to Face Combat: The Debates: Gore Lost Personality Points Even as He Scored Debating Points. This Was Turnaround II, and Bush Hit the Homestretch with a Burst of Confidence

Magazine article Newsweek

Face to Face Combat: The Debates: Gore Lost Personality Points Even as He Scored Debating Points. This Was Turnaround II, and Bush Hit the Homestretch with a Burst of Confidence

Article excerpt

George W. Bush would later credit his wife with stopping the downward slide. After the convention, Laura had been mostly missing from the campaign while she devoted herself to getting the twins off to college, Jenna to the University of Texas, Barbara to Yale. Bush was always happier when Laura traveled with him. She soothed and settled him as well as giving him good--and honest--advice at just the right moment. Her return to the campaign trail in early September was a harbinger of yet another swing in the seesaw polls.

On a flight to Portland, Ore., on Sept. 25, Bush stood up and put his face only inches from a reporter's face as he described how lucky he was to have Laura back by his side on the campaign trail, freed from her home-maker chores. "She got a little bit bridled there," Bush said, as if he were referring to a prize horse. Laura thought her furlough had given her a fresh perspective on the race. "I was off the road, helping the girls move to school," she said. "You get a totally different view than you get on the [campaign] plane. I was seeing what everybody else was seeing."

As Laura told the story, she began to have worries as she helped her daughter Barbara unpack at Yale in late August. Barbara didn't have a TV set in her dorm room, but Laura was getting regular reports from George's cousin Debbie Stapleton and her husband, Craig, about the newly critical press coverage, particularly in The New York Times. Laura was staying with the Stapletons in Greenwich, Conn. "I'm worried about the campaign," Laura told her hosts. She wasn't just bothered by Gore's rising poll numbers--she had expected a bounce for the veep after the Democratic convention--but by the "look" of the Bush campaign in the media. "It didn't look good," recalled Laura. "The pictures weren't good, the stories weren't good, the pictures on TV weren't good."

Her anxieties jelled when she returned to the campaign. As George was out for his afternoon jog, Laura sat in the hotel room flipping channels. She came across CNN's daily afternoon show "Inside Politics." Every story, it seemed to Laura, served only to magnify her husband's problems: the bungled debate-over-the-debates, the "major league" open-mike gaffe, the inconsistency between Bush's promise to improve the "tone" of politics and the RNC's sneering ads about Gore. She was struck with a feeling of helplessness. When George returned to the room, she unloaded.

"This is terrible," she said, gesturing at the TV. "Every single story was negative."

"Well, don't fuss at me about it," said her husband, sweaty from his three-mile run. Sounding more frustrated than irritated, he reminded her he rarely watched TV.

"I'm not fussing at you. I'm fussing at CNN," she replied. Taking her husband at his word, she decided to fuss at someone who could do something. She picked up the phone and called campaign manager Karl Rove. The candidate's wife described what she had just seen on CNN. "This needs to be changed," she told Rove. "Everybody needs to reassess. We need to reassess what we're planning. The campaign has gotten a little bit into the safe. Every event is the same. George has stopped doing those one-on-ones." Just as he had after he lost the New Hampshire primary, she argued, her husband needed to step out from be-hind the podium and start taking questions again directly from the voters.

Rove offered no argument or defense. "You're right," he said.

Laura also pointed out to Rove that her husband wasn't doing any "free media"--appearing on talk shows. She believed that chatting with Oprah or Larry King and their ilk would show off the candidate to his best advantage. "You need to start going on those shows," she told her husband.

Bush bucked at first. "No, I don't want to do that. I don't want to go on those shows." Laura knew that his reluctance was reflexive. She had seen it before. "You're good on those," she persisted. …

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