CLEARWATER, Fla. -- George W. Bush looked good campaigning in Florida this week, his issues hardened and his format changed. But his spending a day and a half here shows how the presidential campaign has been transformed in the four weeks since the Democratic convention.
Florida has moved from a lock for Bush to a tossup between him and Al Gore. If Gov. Bush is going to lose the Sunshine State, Vice President Gore can mail inaugural invitations. No combination of electoral votes show Republicans winning a close presidential race without Florida. With the state tipping toward Gore, Bush came here for a three-city schedule (Clearwater, Palm Beach, Orlando) put together over 48 hours.
More important than the Republican candidate's presence in the state was how he campaigned in contrast to his flat performance during the previous two weeks. Besides returning to a personally interactive style he used during primary election campaigning, he stressed ideological differences between him and Gore. His presentation of details on health care, taxes and budget policy was both more detailed and easier to understand. Not a moment too soon, worried Republican politicians around the country might say.
Certainly, they agree in Florida. GOP politicians here seem stunned by the disappearance of Bush's double-digit statewide lead. When I asked Republican State Chairman Al Cardenas who was ahead, he replied: "Maybe Gore by a point and a half." Then he quickly added: "Or us by a point."
How did that happen, since Cuban-Americans appear back in the Republican camp after their 1996 partial defection to Bill Clinton? Republicans here point to Sen. Joe Lieberman, energizing the state's overwhelmingly Democratic Jewish vote but also pulling over independents. What they don't mention is Bush's lackluster performance after the Democratic convention.
Thus, the retooled George W. Gone for now are monster rallies where the candidate appears on TV news reports disconnected from his audience. Gone too are the informal televised interviews on the campaign plane, which (in the candidate's opinion) make him look like he's in prison.
The new mode was his leadoff Florida event at the Top of the World retirement community in Clearwater. As I arrived there for the midday Monday event, scores of voters carrying Bush-Cheney signs were leaving -- turned back for lack of seating. The relatively modest size of the audience enabled Bush to be surrounded by listeners, taking questions and rushing out to embrace a grandmotherly partisan who delivered a stirring endorsement of him.
But the retooling is not merely stylistic. Fears by conservatives that adversity might drive Bush deep into the soggy middle are not being realized. Instead, he depicted a clear ideological choice between big government and individual freedom. "The federal government ought to be humble -- to let the individual make choices," he declared, contrasting his prescription drug program with Gore's. Addressing senior citizens, he pressed his partial privatization of Social Security -- making clear it would only affect younger workers who chose to participate.
Contradicting conservative critics who have privately complained that Bush has abandoned the tax issues, he hit them hard. He renewed his call, first made at the Republican convention, for no more than 33 percent in taxes to be taken from any individual's income, as well as repeal of the "death tax." Federal bureaucrats should "share some of their surplus" with the people who created it.
He likes these issues. In future speeches, he plans to stress the hoops citizens would have to jump through in order to get targeted tax cuts from Gore. He celebrates tax-reduction with far greater determination than Bob Dole did four years ago because he really seems to believe in it.
Bush remains unhappy about Republicans who head for the tall grass when the polls go bad and the parallel pack-mentality of political journalists. He believes that the polls fail to detect the determination of his supporters against a Clinton-Gore continuation.
But he is philosophical. Even if the cutesy Republican television commercials seem to blur rather than clarify, he is trying to draw a bright line for the voters. His attitude: If they prefer big and intrusive government, so be it.