Anyone who has spent time with George W. Bush can tell a version of the same story about the frictionless ease of his personality. Longtime friend and campaign manager Don Evans remembers the grace with which Bush gave away a box of tools he was selling to a man who was eyeing them but clearly didn't have the dough. Texas Rangers fans recall the effortless charm of the team owner who sat in the regular seats, and even John McCain, Bush's nemesis in the primaries, marvels at the seductive charisma he encountered in their first postprimary meeting. Jim Ferguson, one of Bush's admen, is convinced: "If people get a glimpse of what they would see if they actually met him, they will elect him." To Mark McKinnon, Bush's top media adviser, the Bush personality is magic, "like lightning in a bottle."
The full-scale marketing of Bush lightning is about to begin. With the first round of general-election ads sponsored by the campaign airing as early as this week and the Republican Convention opening July 31, the Bush team is taking its message--that their candidate is a "new kind of Republican," a "compassionate conservative" and, most important, a "good man"--to a national audience. Courtesy of an eclectic team of admen and message masseurs, the public will be marinated in images of the candidate. Each one will underscore the idea that this well-bred scion of a political dynasty is a regular guy with a good heart. Whether it's grainy footage in the convention film of Bush's childhood in Midland, Texas; a 30-sec. ad featuring Bush behind the wheel of a beat-up Ford Bronco on his dusty ranch outside Waco; or a candid moment at home when he and his wife Laura share a laugh at his expense, the point will be the same: that Bush, with his sunny optimism and persuasive charm, is the antidote to eight years of duplicity and partisan bickering in Washington.
Bush is hoping the personal really is the political. He has unveiled some substantive policy proposals, but his advisers know that voters won't elect him on the basis of his plan to partly privatize Social Security or his promise to reform Section 8 housing. Bush faces the apathy born of prosperity. "I just can't remember a time when the public's been so tuned out of a presidential campaign," says Ronald Reagan's famous imagemaker, Michael Deaver. "People are going to make their decision based on the impression a candidate makes more than anything else." Like John Kennedy, who ran in the prosperity of the Eisenhower years in 1960, Bush must exploit Americans' desire for what chief strategist Karl Rove calls "reasonable change"--a yearning for what they already have, only better. And so the Bush pitch is basically this: that he will be a centrist consensus builder who won't squander today's prosperity but will make Americans feel good about their leader again.
Capturing that feeling and conveying it over the airwaves to the broader public is the job of Bush's unusual media team. Led by McKinnon, a lapsed Democrat and former guitar picker who in his youth hung out with Kris Kristofferson, the bunch includes veteran G.O.P. adman Stuart Stevens, who doubles as a successful novelist, travel and TV-script writer, and a cadre of Madison Avenue advertising whizzes who call themselves the Park Avenue Posse.