The Man Who Could Be President George W. Bush isn't just the spittin' image of his dad. He's a popular governor, a man with a lively past--and the Republicans' hope for the future.
By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum

(FORTUNE Magazine) – First of all, it's George W. Bush. Not George H.W. Bush. Not Junior. Not Shrub. Don't confuse the governor of Texas with his dad. George the Younger speaks in complete sentences. He believes in that vision thing. "The vision thing matters, and you've got to explain it so people can understand it," he said during a recent interview with FORTUNE. He talks about subjects his father would never discuss in polite company. Such as Jesus. "My religion is important to me. And I hope it's important to you." Such as drinking too much. "I wasn't so funny when I drank," he confesses. "All you have to do is ask my wife." A reformed carouser who speaks with the zeal of the converted, George W. is more passionate, more spiritual, more substantive, more charming, more quick-tempered, more wily, more witty, more conservative, and politically more astute than George H.W. ever was. Don't expect him to tell people to read his lips.

Get ready. The next 18 months will be an exercise in getting to know the next George Bush. It won't be easy. Not because George W. is shy--he's as blunt and unreserved as his father was buttoned-down and opaque--but because he's a stew of contradictions. A Connecticut-born Yankee who's as Texan as his twang. A Republican hatchet man who has co-opted his state's most hard-bitten Democrats. A multimillionaire who didn't always care for the business world. A national-security hawk who sat out the Vietnam war on a military airfield in Houston. And the only candidate in the race who hasn't dreamed and schemed of becoming President. "It was never on my radar screen," he says. "Just ask my friends. If I choose to run and lose, so be it. I'll finish my term and be a happy guy." He sounds like he means it.

Yet President is exactly what he may become, thanks in part to his famous name and his fundraising prowess. A groundswell, the likes of which hasn't been seen since Dwight Eisenhower returned home a World War II hero, has made Bush, 53, the runaway favorite to win the Republican nomination--and the party's strongest candidate by far in a race against Al Gore, the likely Democratic nominee. More than 30 delegations of the GOP's most potent fundraisers have traveled to Austin to lunch with him. A majority of Republican lawmakers in at least eight state legislatures, including California's, have endorsed him. Nearly two-thirds of the nation's 31 GOP governors support his candidacy. And George W. hasn't even officially announced yet!

Okay. Okay. It's way too early to anoint the guy. Indeed, you could be forgiven for wondering why the Republicans are even bothering to enter this race. The economy is practically perfect, as is President Clinton's job-approval rating. Al Gore is a clean-living Democratic wonk who has spent his entire life preparing to move into the White House. The Republican Party, meanwhile, is an unofficial disaster area, badly split between moderates and right-wing ideologues, and led by a bunch of men who range from untested to unknown. Bush himself is a stranger on the national stage. He's been only a so-so speaker the few times he's ventured out of state. If populist credentials matter, he doesn't have them. Born at a bastion of Northeastern aristocracy--on the campus of Yale University--he attended the country's most elite schools: Andover, Yale, and Harvard. For years he was the caricature of a spoiled rich kid, more interested in baseball than in business, distinguished more for his affability than his acumen.

Bush knows the front-runner label is a liability this early in the race. When you start at the top, there's no place to go but down. His opponents and the press will train most of their attention on him. One errant remark, one nasty news story, one snarly encounter, and off he goes to the political trash heap. He could quickly succumb to the most dangerous narcotic of politics, high expectations. As Bush himself acknowledges, "Expectations are through the roof."

Still, the people who know Bush believe he has staying power. He isn't the wayward young man he once was. He's focused. Disciplined. Comfortable. "I know exactly who I am," he says. "I'm very comfortable with what I've done, what I haven't done." As a politician, he also has huge advantages. Despite his differences with Dad, he's an heir of the only family that rivals the Kennedys and the Roosevelts as a 20th-century American political dynasty. After all, he is George Bush, son of former president George Bush; grandson of Prescott Bush, a U.S. senator from Connecticut; and brother of Jeb Bush, Florida's governor.

But perhaps his No. 1 asset is his home state. Texas ain't Arkansas--or Georgia. It's the big time. With big money. Big issues. Big egos (see following story). And Texans just luuuve George W. Even Democrats. "We're all Texans here," coos Pete Laney, the Democratic Speaker of the House, who eats breakfast with Bush once a week. An astounding 69% of voters--including 49% of Hispanics--reelected him last fall.

Those kinds of numbers have GOP leaders salivating. Many see George W.--with his broad support--as balm for their party's impeachment-inflicted wounds. Washington Republicans are perceived as callous, ineffective, and out of touch--more concerned with destroying Clinton than with legislating. Bush, on the other hand, is a big-hearted Washington outsider with fresh ideas, a pile of accomplishments, and access to enough cash to run a national campaign. He and his political strategists have already developed an audacious plan. Unlike recent Republican front-runners, Bush won't lurch right in the primaries, then scamper to the middle for the general election--a tactic that cost past GOP candidates crucial credibility. Instead, through public discussion of his own religious awakening and personal entreaties to key Christian activists, he'll aim to win over enough hard-core conservatives to triumph in the crowded primaries.

He has the luxury to attempt this because he's so far ahead. Recent national polls show Bush roughly ten points in front of his closest GOP rival, Elizabeth Dole, and a steady, single-digit distance ahead of Gore. A private Democratic poll put Bush in front of Gore even in California, a state the Veep has courted assiduously. Whoever wins California in 2000 will almost certainly move to the White House.

Barring a blunder that derails him, then, Bush has no real competition for the Republican nomination. "'Prohibitive favorite' is too strong to describe him," says Charles Cook, a respected election analyst. "'Favorite' is too weak. How about 'strong favorite'?" Elizabeth Dole may be superficially appealing, but she's been appointed to more federal jobs (seven) than she's been elected to (zero). Moreover, she's not likely to be an effective campaigner. She's too tightly scripted, too vague on the issues, too recent an echo of her husband's failed race in 1996. She probably isn't a contender for vice president, either; why would George W. want to remind voters of two failed campaigns (1992 and 1996) on one bumper sticker?

George W.'s only other worry is magazine publisher Steve Forbes, who will try to buy a strong showing in a few early contests as a way to jumble the race and make room for his otherwise long-shot campaign. To prevent this--and to make sure Bush has money to spend right up until the party convention--aides say he's likely to become the first top-tier, non-self-financed presidential candidate to eschew federal funding. That would free him from state-by-state spending limits and allow him to keep pace with Forbes. Bush is in a position to reject federal money because he has an awesome fundraising machine. It includes the remnants of his father's national network, as well as the networks assembled by his own campaign in Texas and by Jeb in Florida. Most of those donors will probably ante up again. In addition, nearly 20 GOP governors are, um, beating the bushes for cash for their Texas colleague, as are alumni of Andover, Yale, and Harvard Business School.

What, exactly, will people get for their money? George W. calls himself a "compassionate conservative," which translates at the ballot box as a Republican trying to appeal to Democrats. Ronald Reagan was the last guy who managed that, and in fact, George W.'s views are closer to Reagan's than to the elder Bush's. Like Reagan, George W. wants to shrink government, cut taxes, spend more on the military, reduce trade restrictions, and promote (critics say impose) family values. With "compassionate conservatism," he is putting a smiling face on ideas that many Republicans share, but tend to lecture about with a frown. In other words, sunny George W. is to miserly Newt Gingrich what rosy Ronald Reagan was to scary Barry Goldwater: an upbeat communicator of a conservative vision. "I am such an optimist about what is going on," says Bush. "But only if the prosperity is meant for everyone.... I worry about the haves and the have-nots. [Mine] is a message that says nobody should be left behind."

There are important differences between Reagan and George W. Bush. Reagan paid only lip service to maintaining a safety net for the poor. Bush seems determined to improve their lives. He has insisted that children know how to read by the end of third grade--or not be promoted. And he has encouraged church and community groups to take over traditional government tasks such as job training and prisoner rehabilitation. "People who adhere to the conservative philosophy better figure out how to make sure it includes everybody," he warns. "Not just say it, but mean it."

What Bush has to say won't always warm the hearts of Christian conservatives. For instance, he is trying to fix Texas public schools with taxpayer dollars rather than with vouchers (except for a small pilot program). Nor is he sufficiently pro-life for true believers. He opposes abortion, but he would not fight to overturn Roe v. Wade. He also favors using government money to pay for abortions in cases where an impoverished woman's life is in danger or where her pregnancy resulted from incest or rape.

Still, Bush may be able to win a critical mass of votes from the religious right by talking about his own very real conversion. He had always been a believer; during the late 1970s and early 1980s, he took Bible classes and taught Sunday school. But the event that changed him occurred in 1986, during a walk on the beach in Kennebunkport, Maine, with Rev. Billy Graham. Graham asked George W. if he was right with God. Bush said he wasn't but thought he needed to be. Later that year he famously stopped drinking the morning after his 40th birthday dinner. Now he reads the Bible daily and takes his faith seriously.

Bush also will meet with key political figures on the religious right. He already has visited Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson, and his friends have approached radio moralist James Dobson. George W. knows he will never be their favorite, but he at least wants them to refrain from speaking against him. "I've come to realize that if you respect somebody's opinion, you don't have to yield on principle to get things done," Bush says. "No one is going to follow someone who pits people against each other. Good people can disagree on issues and still move forward."

All this is a long way from his testosterone-pumping youth. George W. was the smart-alecky, good-time charlie of the Bush brood. His childhood ambition was to play baseball like Willie Mays. Cerebral Jeb was always regarded as the family's other politician. George W. was so much older than his four siblings (he's seven years senior to Jeb, the next oldest) that only he spent his formative years in the desolate oil-drilling town of Midland. His scrappiness derives from that experience.

At Andover and Yale, George W. honed a trait that would carry him far: getting along with people. Although bright, he didn't impress anybody with his academics. Instead he was unpretentious, athletic, hard working, hard playing, and popular. At Andover, schoolmates elected him "chief cheerleader"--a high honor at the all-male boarding school. At Yale, soon after he had been accepted into the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, upperclassmen tried to humiliate him and his pledge brothers by asking them to name their fellow initiates. A handful of boys managed to name three or four. George W. rattled off all 50. Bush finished his years at Yale as the Dekes' president.

After graduating in 1968, George W. added a swagger--and some controversy--to his persona. Like many men of his education and background, he joined the national guard and never served in Vietnam. (Al Gore did go to Vietnam--as a noncombatant newspaperman.) Bush became a fighter pilot in the Texas Air National Guard and spent the war mostly in Houston, flying F-102 Interceptors, driving his sporty Triumph, and having a grand old time. Such was the genesis of his self-described "nomadic years," when he gained his reputation as an arrogant playboy and ne'er-do-well. He admits to some sins, but declines to catalog them because he wants to be a role model for his 17-year-old twin daughters. "I was drinking too much," he concedes. "That didn't mean daily. That didn't mean in the mornings. I have learned from my mistakes."

The wild times had a lull in 1973 when Bush worked in an anti-poverty mentoring program run by John White, a former pro football player for the Houston Oilers. Bush found meaning there, something he had not yet discovered in the private sector. During that period, he admits, "I tried out the business world. I didn't particularly care for it." Still, White urged Bush to go to Harvard Business School. Recalls George W.: "He said, 'You ought to go. You'll be a much more effective person if you have some net worth. [You'll] be able to help people.'"

So Bush went and got what no other leading contender for the presidency has ever had: an MBA. "What Harvard provided was some tools," he said. "I've always said it was a vocational training exercise in capitalism. It gave me the confidence necessary to walk into a room with high-powered financiers." At Harvard, Bush was as likable as ever--and every inch a Texan; friends recall his carrying a spit cup to class for his chewing tobacco. After he graduated in 1975, he returned to West Texas to make his fortune in black gold, as his father had done decades before. He began by researching mineral rights and moved on to found his own drilling company, called Arbusto Energy. ("Arbusto" means "bush" in Spanish, a language George W. speaks well and often.) He eventually merged his firm with the help of his father's connections and some of his own. His critics still cluck about the lucrative contract to drill oil in Bahrain that the Bush-affiliated Harken Energy Corp. won, even though it had virtually no experience drilling overseas. Bush says everything was aboveboard, though he grades himself as no better than an "okay" oilman.

In 1977 he married Laura Welch, a librarian, and ran for Congress from Midland. The marriage has been a big success; the election was a fiasco. George W. got 47% of the vote, even though he spent a third more money than the winner. He devoted the next several years to his oil business. In 1987 he moved his family to Washington temporarily and reentered politics, not as a candidate but as his father's loyalty enforcer. His job was to protect George H.W. from the political knifing routine in presidential campaigns. In the process he wielded a few blades himself. "If somebody jumped my old man, I was jumping back," says George W. "I was a fierce warrior for George Bush." He returned to Washington in 1991 to inform John Sununu that his days as White House chief of staff were numbered. No one mistakes George W. for just another nice guy.

Bush combined his business and political skills when he bought part ownership of the Texas Rangers baseball team in 1989. "I saw a business opportunity, and I seized it," he says. "I worked hard to put it together.... This was not a gimme." He made the deal happen by persuading a competing investment group that included investor Richard Rainwater to join with his own. As managing general partner, he made the venture profitable by spearheading construction of the team's state-of-the-art Ballpark at Arlington. He once said the stadium was proof that he had accomplished something besides running a small oil company. True enough. When the Rangers were sold last year, Bush collected $14.9 million--more than 20 times his $600,000 investment.

His role with the Rangers lifted his profile so high statewide that running for governor in 1994 seemed like a natural progression. Winning was less natural. The incumbent, Ann Richards, was extremely popular and derided Bush as "Shrub." That was a mistake. Bush turned out to be a tireless and nearly flawless campaigner. Voters saw him as more substantial than Richards did, and elected him with nearly 54% of the vote. George W. immediately began working with Texas Democrats and never quit. Former lieutenant governor Bob Bullock, a Democrat, endorsed Bush for reelection last fall, despite being godfather to a child of Bush's Democratic opponent, Garry Mauro.

That sort of bipartisanship, unheard of in Washington, would be a hallmark of a Bush administration. He goes out of his way to woo the opposition with meals at the mansion, nights at sporting events, or impromptu visits to their offices. He gives his colleagues pet names. State senator David Sibley, who weighs 250 pounds, is "Big." Attorney general John Cornyn is "General Corndog." Bush's three main California fundraisers are "The Boys." And his chief political strategist, Karl Rove, is "Turd Blossom," or "Turd" for short. "I've come to the realization that some of the simple tenets of life matter in the political world," Bush says. "Like sharing credit and, as we say in West Texas, 'visiting with each other' and spending time listening to the other person."

As a chief executive, Bush combines listening with voluminous reading. He likes to convene roundtable talks among experts to adjudicate disputes. He doesn't dally over decisions, nor does he agonize once they're made. Among his best decisions have been his appointees, who are widely praised by Republicans and Democrats. Although he generally lets the appointees do their jobs, he intervenes if he sees a problem. He forced a rewrite of the state's education curriculum in 1996 when he decided after a review that it was bureaucratic "mush."

Policy initiatives have burst like a gusher from the capitol. At Bush's urging, legislators toughened educational standards and the juvenile justice code. They passed welfare and tort reform. They voted the largest tax cut in Texas history, $1 billion in property-tax relief over two years; Bush is pushing for another $2 billion cut this year. Since George W. took office in 1995, employment has grown by 15%. Violent juvenile crimes have decreased 30%, and Texas' welfare rolls have declined 47%. At the same time, spending growth has fallen to its lowest rate in a quarter-century.

All of which would help make a Bush-Gore matchup next year a battle royal. Gore can lay as much claim as Bush to enabling good times to roll. Gore will tie his campaign to the trajectory of the U.S. economy during the Clinton administration. Bush will argue for "prosperity with a purpose" and the need for a "culture shift" into a "responsibility era," which means Clinton's economy may be great, but it can't last forever.

In many ways, Bush and Gore are a lot alike. Both are baby-boomer sons of prominent politicians. Both have chips on their shoulders from their fathers' humiliating falls from power. Al Gore Sr. lost his 1970 Tennessee senate race because of his support of civil rights and his opposition to the Vietnam war. President Bush lost in 1992 to a ticket that included Al Jr. Winning the presidency would be sweet revenge for each son, but especially for George W. That rivalry will make the 2000 presidential debates even more important and interesting than usual.

Each candidate has his own style. Neither is a slick campaigner, but compared with Clinton, who is? Gore, who grew up in a Washington hotel and was old before his time, is plodding but calculating. Bush is rapid-fire and combustible. Journalist Richard Ben Cramer describes George W. as "the Roman candle of the [Bush] family: bright, hot, a sparkler--the likeliest to burn the fingers." Are there skeletons in his closet? George W. says not. Plenty of people will go looking, of course, but it seems safe to say that President Clinton has inoculated every candidate against all but the most egregious lapses.

Presidential politics usually comes down to a basic decision. Do Americans want more of the same, or something different? George W. is definitely different. Yes, he is his father's son. But he is not his father.