Austin, Texas

Republicans who've waited impatiently for months to crown Texas governor George W. Bush as their presidential nominee in 2000 may be in for a surprise. They won't get quite the candidate they expect when Bush finally leaves Texas on June 12 to visit Iowa and New Hampshire. Technically, he's still "exploring" a presidential run, not officially starting one. But everyone knows that's a fiction. Barbara Bush, his mother, said at an Atlanta fund-raiser in May: "If he doesn't run, I'll kill him." What's likely to surprise Republicans -- and maybe the press, Democrats, and everyone else as well -- is the kind of presidential campaign he intends to run. For Bush, at least now, social policy is paramount, economic and foreign policy secondary. So his emphasis over the summer will be on why he's a "compassionate conservative" and what that means for the country if he's elected.

One thing it means is that Bush will focus in speeches on non-traditional subjects for a Republican: the poor, the jailed, the non-English speaking, the badly educated. This is a risky tack, but not because conservative GOP audiences may prefer to hear about other issues. For now, with Bush positioned as the savior of the party in 2000, they'll probably acquiesce. It's risky because compassionate conservatism so far lacks real substance as a political idea. It's more an emotion or an inclination -- and a very appealing campaign slogan. Bush's job is to flesh it out with an urgent national agenda. That won't be easy.

"I'll talk about rallying the armies of compassion and about ushering in the responsibility era," Bush told me. "I'll use Texas examples like Prison Fellowship." As governor, Bush tapped the Christian prison program headed by Charles Colson to work with inmates. The idea, says Bush, is that "changing hearts" will also change behavior and "affect policy the way we want it." School choice is another compassionate-conservative theme, but Bush may approach it gingerly, since his voucher plan was rejected by the Texas legislature. Indeed, he admits his proposal came closer to passing in 1995 than it did this year. Nonetheless, he says, "it's an important part of the menu of opportunity." Bush sees vouchers as a way to increase demand for better schools, and he favors charter schools to increase the supply of good schools.

Bush will need more examples, impressive ones. The "Iowa speech" he and his aides have been working on for months must be hefty. Hundreds of journalists will gather in Des Moines on June 12 to hear him deliver it, and they'll render an instant verdict on its weightiness. After Iowa, the speech becomes his basic text for the summer, as he tours the other early-primary states -- New Hampshire, South Carolina, California, Michigan, Virginia, Washington, Montana, Connecticut, New Jersey. Bush will add comments for local consumption and tack on a new twist or idea or proposal to give the press a fresh angle for their daily stories. But the thrust of the speech -- roughly 90 percent of the text -- won't change. That's the plan anyway.

Bush is so eager to deliver the speech he injected parts of it into what were supposed to be humdrum remarks at a fund-raiser in San Antonio on June 1. "Prosperity without purpose is just materialism," he said. In his early campaigning, he says he "wants people to know my heart." These comments, while vague, are at the core of Bush's version of compassionate conservatism. His point is that prosperity alone doesn't ensure a country that's socially and spiritually healthy, and that his heart is in the right place (with the poor, downtrodden, etc.). He didn't amplify, leaving that for the Iowa speech. But he did promise to set a high-minded tone in the campaign. He said he'd "elevate the dialogue" and be a uniter, not a divider. "I believe in positive campaigns. The campaigns of personal destruction must end."

Though Bush and his aides are loath to admit it, his focus on compassionate conservatism has a Clintonesque quality. It amounts to "triangulation," a clever way to reconcile opposites. In 1996, President Clinton sought to connect a liberal approach with a conservative agenda. He came up with a slew of small government programs and presidential orders that dealt mostly with problems stressed by conservatives. The result: He captured centrist and independent voters. With compassionate conservatism, Bush brings a free-market, religious orientation to social ills like poverty and bad urban schools that normally are emphasized by liberals. Clinton distanced himself from the left, and implicit in Bush's approach is that he's different from the Gingrich Republicans who took over Congress in 1994. He wants to put a new face on the party -- his.

There's certainly a political rationale for doing so. Even with Newt Gingrich replaced by Denny Hastert as House speaker, congressional Republicans are not a lovable group. Bush, understandably, does not want to be identified as an extension of them. This is tricky, however, since 114 GOP House members and 14 senators have already endorsed him. One of Bush's chief supporters is House Republican whip Tom DeLay, the man Democrats hope to demonize in the public's mind as the new Gingrich. And the Bush and DeLay camps are closely allied. But instead of DeLay himself, a surrogate -- deputy whip Roy Blunt of Missouri -- was included on Bush's presidential exploratory committee. Originally, another DeLay pal, Hastert, had been slated to be the surrogate, but that was scrapped when Hastert became speaker.

Oddly enough, it's House Republicans, more than any other conservative or GOP bloc, who have freed Bush to emphasize compassionate conservatism -- or anything else that pops into his mind, for that matter. Their view is simple: With Bush as the presidential nominee in 2000, they'll keep control of the House. They're desperate for Bush to emerge as the party's face, and they have no desire to impose an agenda on him. Hastert says the ideas and philosophy and priorities of congressional Republicans and the nominee should be in close alignment. What he means is: We'll swallow whatever agenda Bush comes up with. And Bush says he's "not uncomfortable with that at all. As a matter of fact, I like the assignment. But first things first, and I've got to win the primary."

If Bush isn't the nominee, one House Republican says the result will be "chaos." Why? Well, look at the alternatives, the Republican says. Senator John McCain is the darling of the media, "but not for standing up for things we believe in." Steve Forbes has alienated congressional Republicans by constantly attacking them. Elizabeth Dole is no friend. Dan Quayle can't win. Senator Paul Coverdell of Georgia, Bush's chief Senate backer, says Bush has worked on issues -- drugs, education reform, tax cuts -- that matter to Senate Republicans. "The homogeneity of the vision is remarkable," according to Coverdell. "The party will deal with whatever it has to deal with, but it'll be harder if the nominee isn't Bush."

The most amazing thing about the embrace of Bush by Capitol Hill Republicans is the vision of a 2000 landslide he's somehow planted in their minds. Bush has yet to set foot outside Texas as a candidate, but some Republicans talk of a GOP "wave" he might set off, lifting Republican candidates at all levels. Coverdell says when Republicans hear about how well Bush has done in Texas with women, Hispanic, and black voters, "the tree lights up." Normally restrained, Coverdell gets almost giddy appraising Bush: "If he ignites, which he has the potential of doing, he does have a Reaganesque coattail. The House would be bolstered in holding its majority. That would be totally historic, a Republican president and a Republican Congress."

Polls putting Bush far ahead of Vice President Al Gore, a flood of endorsements by Republican elected officials, sky-high fund-raising numbers -- these, too, have given Bush the freedom to fashion a campaign based on compassionate conservatism. His record as governor this year also plays an important role, particularly the $ 1.8 billion tax cut he wheedled out of the legislature. This is smaller than the $ 2.6 billion he'd requested, but still "the biggest tax cut in Texas history." Karl Rove, Bush's top political strategist, says Bush doesn't have to persuade conservative voters he's truly a tax cutter. He's proved it.

In fact, Bush won't make much of an effort to shore up his conservative credentials. He'll appear at a faith-based social program in Iowa on June 12, but that's part of his emphasis on compassionate conservatism, not conservatism per se. And he intends to avoid specifics as much as possible. His speeches will be, as the Bush euphemism goes, "thematic." After several months of campaigning, Rove says Bush should be seen as "an activist conservative, a charismatic campaigner who talked about ideas in a way that is appealing. Details to follow."

Bush says he wants to answer three questions for voters this summer. Who's the man? What's his plan? Can he lead? "There will be ample opportunity to lay out a specific agenda," including a "detailed tax plan." But Bush says he'll spell it out "on my time. It may seem like a short campaign, but I think I've got ample time to discuss different issues on my timetable. I understand the pacing of a campaign pretty well."

On foreign policy, however, Bush may get specific late this summer. As a governor, he has no foreign policy experience, for which he needs to compensate by delivering serious speeches on the subject. Even before starting to campaign, he's begun addressing foreign issues, notably China. He told me, for instance, his policy toward China will be different from that of his father, President Bush, as well as from Clinton's. "There's no question that 2000 is different from '91," he said. "Engagement is too accepting. Engagement equals strategic partnership. I have a different view. I would treat China warily." Since the early 90s, Bush said, "China has taken a much more aggressive posture as an emerging nuclear power, someone with whom we are going to have to be very strong in our relationship." Nevertheless, Bush said China should be granted MFN trade status again and admitted to the World Trade Organization.

The Bush line is that there's only one problem looming for his candidacy: high expectations. Rove says he asked around, and no one has a good solution for dealing with expectations. Bush says all he can do is "work hard, talk about what I believe, lay out the specific agenda at the appropriate time, and see what happens. If people like what they see, that's great. If they don't like it, that's my fate. . . . I have this sense of freedom about this race."

So much so that he's all but leapfrogged the primaries and begun the general-election campaign. Compassionate conservatism, after all, is a notion not for attracting conservatives and Republicans but for reaching beyond the GOP base to general-election voters. Rove offers two historic tests for determining who the candidate will be. Both suggest Bush has the nomination in hand. First, the candidate of the Republican establishment -- governors, senators, House members, state legislators, party leaders -- wins the nomination. And Bush is the establishment candidate. Second, a candidate who consistently leads his GOP rivals by 10 points or more the year before the primaries wins. That again is Bush. So all that's left for Bush is to fashion a case for compassionate conservatism. It had better be a compelling one.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.