Bush's role with the Rangers was as its public spokesman and cheerleader, and he used the position to give speeches around Texas and win friends. It was in some sense a political role, shorn of policy, and he was very good at it. Increasingly, he also began to think of using it as a springboard to statewide office. His mother had discouraged him from running while his father was still in the White House, but as the 1994 governor's race approached, that was no longer an issue. Rather, the main concern was whether Bush had any chance to win. Ann Richards, the incumbent Democratic governor, was a national figure and media star with high popularity ratings. Yet Bush, against the advice of friends and family, took her on and ran an artful race.
Richards, who knew that Bush had had problems with his temper, tried to aggravate her opponent into self-destruction by needling him and belittling him as a dull-witted Daddy's boy who never accomplished anything on his own. But Bush simply grinned when Richards goaded him as a "shrub" and a "jerk." One of Bush's insights was that while Texans liked Richards as a person, they often did not agree with her. And so he ran an exceptionally focused, tightly disciplined campaign that hammered home his themes day after day: a tougher juvenile justice system to reduce crime, better schools, tighter restrictions on welfare, and new limits on tort suits.
In the heat of the campaign, Bush went dove hunting, with some thirty reporters in tow. A bird flew up, he blasted away with his shotgun, and proudly held up the prize for the news photographers. The reporters pointed out that he had shot not a dove, but a protected songbird known as the killdee. Bush promptly confessed, paid a $130 fine, and began his news conference that afternoon by saying: "Thank goodness it wasn't deer season. I might have shot a cow." The humor and discipline of the campaign worked: Bush defeated Richards with a healthy 54 percent of the vote. Almost immediately, as the Republican governor of a major state, as a man with a formidable war chest and superb political connections, he was regarded as a national figure.
Bush went out of his way in Texas to work with Democrats and to build bridges with groups that he had offended in his gubernatorial run. During the campaign, Bush had told a reporter of his own belief that the path to Heaven comes from acceptance of Jesus as one's personal savior. Some non-Christians, particularly Jews, were upset that Bush was effectively consigning them to hell. One of the first things he did after becoming governor was to meet a group of Jewish leaders in Houston and soothe the ruffled feelings. Likewise, from the beginning Bush worked exceptionally closely with the Democratic kingmaker of Texas, Bob Bullock, who was nearing the end of his career and came to look on Bush as a protégé and close friend. This spirit of bipartisan cooperation was one of the most striking features of Bush's years as governor, and it maximized his effectiveness.
Bush did not appear to put in long hours as governor—he typically went home at 5:00 P.M. and allocated only fifteen minutes to review death penalty cases and decide whether or not to grant a stay of execution, according to detailed schedules of the governor's time obtained by The New York Times under the Texas freedom of information law. But he dominated the legislative agenda, won an education reform package, and attempted unsuccessfully to pass an even more far-reaching tax-restructuring proposal. He also became steadily more popular, and by 1996 he was being mentioned as a potential presidential contender for 2000. In the summer of 1997, one of his aides, Karen Hughes, informed him that there had been an opinion poll of potential Republican candidates for the 2000 race. "You're leading," she told him.
The prospect of a presidential race depended on Bush winning reelection as governor in 1998, and this he did by a landslide. He won 68 percent of the vote and became the first Texas governor reelected to a second consecutive four-year term. Once he was reelected, Bush turned to the question of the presidency and began grappling with what friends say were his two main concerns: his family and his past. Associates say that his wife Laura and his twin girls, who were in high school when he was governor, were not exactly opposed to him running, but that they worried about what the race would mean for their privacy. The girls, the more studious Barbara and the more outgoing Jenna, already were sensitive to the impact on their lives of having a prominent politician as a father.
Bush was also reluctant to face the scrutiny of his past that is the fate of any presidential candidate. Already, he was facing persistent questioning about drug use—he declined to say whether he had used illegal drugs, but his circumlocutions seemed to suggest that he had—and he had never disclosed his arrest for drunken driving in Maine.
Yet in the end Bush did run, and from the beginning he was the overwhelming favorite, both in polls and in fund-raising. His strength extinguished some candidacies in their infancy—like those of Elizabeth Dole, Dan Quayle, and Lamar Alexander—and so his main rivals in the Republican primaries were Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes, Orrin Hatch, Alan Keyes, and John McCain. Of these, McCain was the only one who had a chance, appealing to a mix of liberals and conservatives alike with his background as a war hero and his calls for campaign finance reform. In contrast to McCain's dynamism, Bush initially ran a hesitant campaign in which he was perceived by voters as aloof and somewhat arrogant. The result was a crushing defeat in the New Hampshire primary on 1 February 2000, with Bush getting just 31 percent to McCain's 49 percent.
After New Hampshire, Bush refurbished his campaign, seizing the reformer label from McCain and becoming far more energetic. He went out of his way to cultivate reporters, whom he had previously seemed to disdain, and he charged into the fray and recovered his footing. Steadily Bush gained states in his column for the Republican nomination, including a decisive win in South Carolina on 19 February and again in nine more states on Super Tuesday, 7 March. By then Bush was effectively the Republican nominee, but the animosity between his staff and McCain's took months to ease.
Bush had asked Dick Cheney, his father's secretary of defense, to lead the effort to find a running mate, but in the end Bush chose Cheney himself to be the vice presidential candidate. It was politically an odd choice, for Cheney was, like Bush, a Texas oilman and did not bring new geographic support to the ticket, but Cheney did bring solidity and experience to the ticket.
The Republican convention in Philadelphia, 31 July to 3 August, was a milestone for the Bush campaign. It sought to reassure the nation that Bush was a centrist, rather than the hard-line conservative depicted by the Democrats, and inclusiveness was a constant theme. Some speeches were given in Spanish, and the large number of African Americans who appeared on the podium led some comedians to joke that the event looked like a Black Entertainment Network broadcast. At the end, Bush gave perhaps the finest speech of his career until that point, a warm and visionary talk that praised President Clinton's talents but suggested that they had been used for no great purpose. Bush managed to raise issues of moral leadership without sounding shrill, and he called for cooperation with Democrats to address traditional Democratic issues like poverty and education. Republicans, he said, are "not the party of repose, but the party of reform." He declared: "We will extend the promise of prosperity to every forgotten corner of this country: to every man and woman, a chance to succeed; to every child, a chance to learn; and to every family, a chance to live with dignity and hope."
The campaign against then-Vice President Al Gore unfolded largely as expected and was tight all the way. Gore's political strength was that he was an incumbent of sorts at a time when the United States was enjoying the longest economic boom in its history, but he also came across as wooden and, to some, as shifty and untrustworthy. Bush was far less knowledgeable about policy issues (he famously mixed up Slovakia and Slovenia, among other lapses), but he impressed many voters as honest and amiable. In a series of campaign debates that perhaps made the difference, he came across to many voters as more knowledgeable than they had expected, while Gore did poorly.