AUSTIN, TEX. The long and lanky black cat, Cowboy, sits rolled in a ball in the sunshine. The brittle, light green leaves cling to the branches of the pecan tree. The thermometer reads 81 degrees. Here in the formal gardens of the governor's mansion, the season has not yet changed.
But beyond the gates on Lavaca Street, beyond the elegant white columns standing guard before polished white brick walls, beyond earshot of the quiet shirtsleeves conversation in front of the tiny reflecting pool, the season has most definitely changed. George Bush, who is holding forth on the white lawn furniture, senses it. The rhythms beyond the governor's mansion, built in 1856 and retaining a 19th-century sensibility, have shifted. The structure of the Republican presidential campaign, recently so leisurely in pace and so courtly in character, has altered.
It seems like summer in the gardens; it is autumn by the calendar's count, but in reality the presidential campaign is already on a winter footing. Winter is when the weaker campaigns falter, when the dreamers' hopes expire. That has happened already, and former Red Cross president Elizabeth H. Dole's departure only underlined how early winter has come this year. Winter, moreover, is when big leads narrow. That, too, has happened, with Bush's big leads of summer becoming victims of a cold snap.
Bush, of course, is still the candidate best suited to winter, the lead dog with the biggest sled, the most insulation, the biggest storehouses of support and treasure. This is the winter his strategists have saved for, plotted for, girded for. "I've got a plan that will carry me through March 7 -- when I win," he said in the garden here the other afternoon. There is a pause, and a breeze's rush fills the empty air. "Or don't win."
Most campaigns are struggling to survive past Jan. 24, when Iowa holds its precinct caucuses, or Feb. 1, when New Hampshire holds its primary. Bush is looking to March 7, the biggest primary day in the nation's history, when voters in the giant states of California and New York, plus most of New England, go to the polls. He's been to 34 states since he began campaigning June 12. "I'm preparing our team for what happens after these initial states," he says.
Now, the governor's advisers have concluded, is the time to engage the contest. Now their efforts are gathering in intensity. Now the television advertisements have started in the early political states of Iowa and New Hampshire. The Bush campaign will be "up" -- the political professionals' shorthand for "on the air," but an apt enough metaphor for the entire campaign -- without pause, even during the holidays, even as the millennium shifts, well into the winter and perhaps into the spring. They have the money to do it, and they intend to use it.
This new burst of Bush activity -- an education speech today, followed by speeches on economic and foreign policy in following weeks -- comes as the nascent presidential race has been quietly transformed.
The Republican forum that the governor skipped at Dartmouth College last week served to reinforce the Bush team's conclusion that the GOP race is a two-man fight, against Sen. John McCain of Arizona, for the Republican mainstream, with billionaire Steve Forbes playing the role of irritant from the right.
"How big is the mainstream?" Bush muses out loud, and his answer is deeper than it reads: "I think the mainstream is pretty big, particularly because the Republicans want to unite behind one banner."
That is not an answer for all seasons, but from the start the Bush team has calculated that it is the answer for this season, when the GOP is eager to reclaim the White House it controlled for the dozen years before Bill Clinton won it from Bush's father in 1992. At the heart of the Bush campaign is the belief that Republicans are too hungry to win the general election to have the taste to bloody each other during a series of primary elections.
Bush acknowledges that his GOP opponents may want to ambush him when he finally joins them for a Republican debate early next month. "That's fine," he says. "Doesn't bother me in the least." But he's ready for attacks against his record -- and he and his camp expect to get them, especially from Forbes.
So far Bush has been able to control events, not be controlled by them. He's quick with casual remarks and yet he doesn't shoot from the hip; there haven't been any missteps thus far. The candidate ridiculed by his rivals for lacking discipline has run the most disciplined campaign in the field.
The chills of winter haven't yet reached into the governor's mansion here in Austin. But they await Bush once the black gates roll open. "We've entered a new phase," he says from the comfort and safety of the gardens. He's right. The old 1950s song had the idea: The winds outside are frightful, but here it's so delightful. For now.
-- David Shribman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.