Bush: Worries? What Worries?

Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. George W. Bush speaks at a rally with his wife Laura Wednedsay, Sept. 6, 2000, in Scranton, Pa.
George W. Bush says he's not worried about reports that some of his fellow Republicans are worried about how he's handling his tightening race with Vice President Al Gore.

At an airport press conference Thursday in Michigan, Bush joked, "I may have to go more alpha male down the stretch," a reference to counsel Gore received from a feminist advisor about his own image problems earlier in the campaign.

Polls show the two men running close nationally, with Gore gaining and even edging Bush out in some of the battleground states expected to determine the outcome of the election.

The New York Times reported Thursday that a number of leading Republicans, including some on Bush's team, are expressing misgivings about how the GOP nominee is responding to Gore's surge.

Bush dismissed the complaints as those of "four or five people," and implied that the sources were engaging in Monday morning quarterbacking.

Lowering his voice, Bush said, sarcastically, "Any able reporter will find four or five people that said, 'Well, gosh, things aren't going exactly as they would be if I were in charge.'"

The governor, who famously prizes loyalty, seemed annoyed by the disloyalty of Republicans who would voice their doubts, even anonymously. Implying retribution, Bush said it's "good to figure out who's nervous and who's not nervous right now."

But it's not just Gore's rising poll numbers that are triggering the GOP jitters. Some complain Bush running mate Dick Cheney adds no spark to the ticket and that Bush's prescription drug plan hasn't caught fire. Others say the governor's off-color remark about a New York Times reporter on Labor Day knocked him off message - and that his campaign is just plain arrogant.

With military hero Colin Powell at his side, the governor, who's never been in combat, said, "That’s Washington; that's the place where you find people getting ready to jump out of the foxhole before the first shell is fired … in Washington, D.C."

Bush said he could improve the image he's been presenting to the public by being seen mixing more often with regular folks. "I need to present a better picture," said Bush. "People have been seeing me on the airplane and they don't get a sense I relate to people."

"I'd like to be able to meet with people more often," Bush said, "in less formal settings." Asked if informal settings include town-hall meetings, Bush said yes, adding that town halls worked well for him in the primaries.

Bush also claimed that he's the real "underdog" in the race, since Gore is "part of an administration that can point to prosperity and peace."

Gore spokesman Chris Lehane responded, calling Bush, "the only guy in history who goes out and raises more than $100 million an then hen calls himself an underdog."

Veteran GOP operative Charles Black said Bush has plenty of time to regain losground.

"Everybody got cocky, after Bush's comfortable lead over Gore through most of the summer and a triumphant GOP convention, Black said.

Stuart Rothenberg, a Washington-based political analyst, agreed. "It's possible to turn this around," he said. "Bush needs to look confident and feel confident and somehow put Gore on the defensive, regain some momentum. But I don't think they can expect to do it overnight."

The governor now appears to be softening his stance on at least one troublsome issue - the debate imbroglio. Although he said he still hoped Gore would show up next Tuesday for a special prime-time debate on NBC's Meet The Press, Bush is no longer ruling out agreeing to the bipartisan commission debates supported by the vice president.

"It'll be worked out. There are going to be debates," Bush said.