Washington In front of our eyes, the transformation of George W. Bush has been so smooth, magical and seamless, it's like watching Harry Houdini escape from a locked safe underwater.
Do that trick for us again, Dubya.
In a dazzling act of voodoo, the George W. we saw in the primaries only 100 days ago the steely-eyed Bush who nuzzled up to GOP right-wingers and treated minority groups like poison ivy vanished.
Presto! Here's a gentler, kinder, if not entirely credible George W.
Look, we're grown-ups. We know politicians' quick-change M.O. They cater to their wing nuts in the primaries Republicans to the right, Dems to the left then scamper back to the middle. Old stuff.
But Bush's metamorphosis has been slicker than most.
What happened to the George W. who coddled the religious right at Bob Jones U. without a word against its racist practices?
What happened to the George W. who passively accepted the flying of the Confederate flag in Columbia, S.C.?
The George W. who woudn't sign a Texas hate-crimes bill? Who wouldn't speak to a minority journalists' group? Who wore as a badge of honor his 135 Texas executions?
Zap, that George W.'s been wiped out as if someone had hit a cosmic "DELETE" key.
The new, saintly George W. hustles around the country, selling himself to Hispanic and black audiences all the while winking at conservative Republicans as if to say, "I'm still with you."
OK, it's normal, cynical, back-to-the-center politics. It's smart to attack Al Gore's base constituency. Clever for George W. to peddle the illusion of an "inclusive" Republican Party.
So give him credit for bravery in speaking before the nation's biggest, older African-American group. At least he tried.
He knew NAACP delegates booed his daddy, then Ronald Reagan's VP, in 1983. He knew Bob Dole ducked the NAACP in 1996, accusing leader Kweisi Mfume of "trying to set me up."
George W. was loaded with winsome charm and the poised bravado of a candidate ahead in the polls with nothing to lose.
"Some in my party have avoided the NAACP and some in the NAACP have avoided my party," he said to scattered laughter.
In the ritual of Republicans who speak to black audiences, George W. quickly invoked the legend of Abraham Lincoln. And just as quickly, he apologized for coming up short of the Great Emancipator.
"No escaping the reality that the party of Lincoln had not always carried the mantle of Lincoln," said Dubya.
He recycled his standard stump speech, except for one vow that could have tripped off a Democrat's tongue: "Strong civil rights enforcement will be a cornerstone of my administration." Really?
What Bush didn't say loomed larger than his rhetoric.
He didn't say, "Folks, I was wrong to duck the Confederate flag represents slavery to you and shouldn't fly over a state Capitol."
He didn't say, "I should have encouraged Bob Jones U. to join the 21st century."
He didn't say, "Yes, most people executed in Texas are non-whites. At the least we should use DNA technology and make our process foolproof against error."
Some NAACP folk filled in Bush's blanks. Protesters brandished photos of executed Gary Graham and shouted, "Governor Bush murdered an innocent man!"
Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century literary lion, said of a dog walking on his hind legs: "Not that he does it well, but that he does it at all." That covers George W.s' NAACP appearance a neat trick without a pratfall.
Predictably, the African-American audience was skeptical of Dubya's credentials and the Nixon/Reagan/Bush past. "Talks the talk, but can he walk the walk?" NAACP delegates grumbled.
One shrugged, "All syrup and religion." Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Tex., groused, "His compassion is for right-wing conservatives."
Just as predictably, 24 hours later they awarded rousing ovations to Hillary Clinton. Clinton, who needs a huge black turnout in her New York Senate race, subtly jabbed Dubya: "A lot of people now talk about opportunity and justice. I would have loved to have seen them at Knoxville and Minneapolis and Little Rock (past NAACP conventions)."
You could hear echoes of Texas Gov. Ann Richards' acerbic taunt about Dubya's daddy: "Where ... was ... George?"
Did Dubya help himself by his foray into the NAACP's den?
Maybe not in the 2000 vote. He'll probably collect about the same black support as the senior Bush in 1992 (12 percent) and Dole in 1996 (14 percent.)
But each day George W. enhances his image as a smooth charmer without sharp ideological edges. He's chipping away at Gore's base. He has captured Bill Clinton's personna and centrist themes a Texas Bubba.
From Bob Jones U. to an NAACP convention is a long, strange trip.
Maybe we'll yet discover the real George W. Bush.
If there is one.