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IN TEXAS, BUSH PONDERS 'THE QUESTION'

It's pleasingly cool and whispery quiet inside the Texas State Capitol. There's little hot air and few hotheads around; the Legislature has been gone since early June and won't return until January 1999. Look through the frosted glass doors, and the offices of the biggest potentates of Texas politics are dark. The House and Senate chambers, famous sites of so many shenanigans, are so empty you could swing a cat, if you could find one.

But up a set of stairs is the hot spot of Texas politics, arguably one of the hot spots of all of American politics.

For three years, George W. Bush has occupied the second-floor governor's office that once belonged to preposterous rogues like W. Lee "Pass the biscuits, Pappy" O'Daniel, to colorful figureheads like Miriam "Ma" Ferguson, and to redoubtable chips off the American block like Ann Richards.

Bush is in his third year as governor on the tailwinds of astonishing public approval and is a cinch to be re-elected and become the first Texas governor to serve two consecutive four-year terms.

A cinch, that is, if he chooses to serve all four years of that second term.

By name recognition if not by reputation, Bush frequently turns up at the very top of the heap for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000. That seems impossibly far away, of course, but Bush must make his intentions clear. He'll declare his candidacy for re-election -- there's no mystery about that -- but within minutes he'll be asked a question far more important:

If re-elected, will you pledge to serve all four years?

Some of his GOP rivals, especially former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, are angling to make sure The Question is asked. The Austin press corps is primed for it. Bush knows it's coming.

"I haven't figured out my answer yet," he said in a conversation the other afternoon. He pauses, leaning against a needlepoint pillow made by his mother, Barbara. "There will be the question. I'm not going to lie. I won't try to be tricky."

Answering The Question is an art form peculiar to politics, but it's a window into a politician's mind, if not exactly into his soul. In December 1942, just after being re-elected governor of New York, Republican Thomas E. Dewey pledged he'd serve his full term and not run for president. He ran, of course, and lost in 1944, as he would again in 1948.

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton made a similar vow in 1990 that forced him to spend weeks on the road, engaging in a contrived "conversation" with Arkansans that he argued released him from his vow. He won the White House but not the full trust of the American people.

"I didn't run for governor to be president," says Bush. "I'm not certain to what extent there are certain inevitabilities in life. I do know that Texans don't want their governor running around the country, preening for another job."

Even his critics acknowledge that Bush, 51, has a gift for graciousness. He took on conservative leaders but managed not to alienate conservative voters. But he's been a politician for only 33 months. And while he's good at creating consensus, he shies from bashing heads -- an asset for a president of the chamber of commerce but not necessarily for a president of a country.

It's tempting to compare Bush with his father, and in truth the son delivers a lot you do not expect from a Bush: big gestures, not little hand motions. Complete, sculpted thoughts, not evocative sentence fragments. An inclination to be a reformer, not just a problem solver. An aggressiveness in governing, not just in campaigning. (He winds up a long discourse on the state's property-tax system by apologizing, "It's all very pedantic, but it's part of my job.")

The Texas constitution created a notoriously weak chief executive, but Bush has found hidden levers of power and has won friends in unlikely places, like the Democratic cloakroom. He's emerged as a strong figure in the state's divided GOP establishment, and while the state Republicans are riven by rivalries between conservatives and centrists, the governor sails serenely above it all.

In casual conversation he refers to himself as "a populist driver." He's a Republican who talks about the poor and the aged and uses "compassion" and "responsibility" in the very same sentence. He's thinking about a new round of state tax cuts, after his plan to overhaul the school funding system bombed. And while he won his office as an insurgent, he must keep it as an incumbent.

He may end up running unopposed in 1998. But he won't be home free. For Bush, The Question may be the first primary of the 2000 campaign.

Universal Press Syndicate

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