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Last Updated: Friday, 17 September, 2004, 10:15 GMT 11:15 UK
Divided America: The Bush factor
By Richard Allen Greene
BBC News Online in Austin, Texas

George W Bush came into office promising to be "a uniter, not a divider" - but he has gone on to be one of the most divisive presidents in recent memory.

President Bush at a campaign rally in St Cloud, Minnesota, on 16 September
Bush: A divisive figure
Fewer than 10% of Democrats approve of his performance, polls suggest. More than 85% of Republicans do.

Experts predict that America's famously low voter turnout will be unusually high this year partly because people on both sides feel so passionately about Mr Bush himself.

Darrin Duber-Smith is one of the rare Republicans unhappy with Mr Bush.

An environmental marketing consultant in Boulder, Colorado, Mr Duber-Smith says he will vote for Democrat John Kerry, partly because Mr Bush is "bad public relations" for the US internationally.

"We've got to change him. We could put a bag of doorknobs in office and it would be better PR," he says.

William Palmieri, a recent university graduate, has been hawking "Ban a Republican" t-shirts on the streets of liberal Boulder.

He made the t-shirts - which mimic those of clothing store Banana Republic - himself, and says they have been selling well.

"I don't think Kerry is wonderful, but over Bush? Bush is ridiculous. Bush is not an intelligent man," Mr Palmieri says.

No fool

But those who know Mr Bush from his days as governor of Texas reject that belief. Supporters and opponents agree that he is not dumb.

Mike Lavigne
It's worse than you think: He's not dumb, he just doesn't want you to know he doesn't like you
Mike Lavigne,
Texas Democratic Party
"You don't go through Yale and Harvard if you're not bright," says Tom Craddick, the Republican Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives.

"He's phenomenal at remembering names - it's unbelievable the names he remembers. So he stumbles a couple of times in a speech. So do I."

Michael Lavigne, the chief of staff of the Texas Democratic party, says those who think the president is stupid have fallen for an act.

"Bush isn't dumb. He may say stupid things and act dumb in public. It's a great tactic, but it is a tactic," he says.

"He plays the part of a Texan pretty well - Texans talk slower, they draw you out and put you at ease. That doesn't necessarily mean they're dumb, it's just a different style."

The act enables Mr Bush to exceed expectations, Mr Lavigne says.

"That's why they say Bush has never lost a debate. The fact that he can finish a sentence shocks and amazes so many people that they figure he must be better than they think."

In fact, he says: "It's worse than you think: He's not dumb, he just doesn't want you to know he doesn't like you."

'Very sincere'

Pat Oles rejects that argument out of hand.

He has known the Bush family for almost 30 years, since he was at university with George W Bush's younger brother Marvin.

Tom Craddick
He is a good old honest guy. America wants someone they can relate to
Tom Craddick,
Texas House Speaker
He campaigned for Ronald Reagan and Mr Bush's father in 1980, when they ran successfully for the White House, and is now co-chair of the central Texas Bush-Cheney re-election drive.

Mr Bush is a genuinely nice person, he says.

"He is a very sincere guy, totally engaging. He goes out of his way to involve himself in his friends' families. He takes an interest in where their kids are going to college.

"He has the weight of the world on his shoulders and he still has time for his friends."

Texas House Speaker Craddick says those qualities shine through.

"He is a good old honest guy. America wants someone they can relate to. I think the issues are important but when push comes to shove and they go into that voting booth they want someone they can relate to and trust - and I think Bush is that person."

He says the president's upbringing in west Texas played a role in forming his personality. In those parts, he says, a man's word is his bond.

"Lots of people out there do business without writing a contract - just a handshake is it. He's confident, he's truthful, he's just like you."

Conservative base

But Mr Lavigne, the Democrat, is not convinced Mr Bush is as honest as his allies claim.

Pat Oles
He's a good man doing what he believes is right and strong leaders are controversial
Pat Oles,
Bush family friend
He says the president is skilled at playing both sides of an issue.

He points to the recent expiration of a 10-year ban on certain types of assault weapons as an example. Mr Bush said he supported a renewal of the ban, but did not campaign for it.

"So he is able to say he is for it, then wink to his National Rifle Association buddies and say: 'Don't worry about it.' It's easy to be for something you know isn't going to happen."

He says the president has not even tried to govern from the centre.

Instead, he has made a strategic decision to play to his natural base of support, the right.

"When you play to your base you're not looking for the other side to necessarily support you," Mr Lavigne says.

"You're making a calculated judgment that you need [a certain] amount of right-wing voters [to get re-elected]. That allows him to work on his base and alienate a whole range of voters - but he only needs to get over 50% to win."

"You don't want to turn swing voters off, but most of your political scientists will tell you that's a decreasing number. Who doesn't have their mind made up by now?" he asks.

Strong

Bush backers, on the other hand, see his behaviour as strong leadership.

US ELECTION ROAD TRIP
Kevin Anderson and Richard Greene
Kevin Anderson and Richard Greene are travelling across the US to get to the heart of the issues in this year's election. They are sending back regular in-depth reports telling us what they find

"We've had some real tough decisions to make in this country the last several years," Tom Craddick says. "He made those decisions. Some were popular and some weren't, but I think they were the best decisions for the country at the time."

"No president has ever had someone attacking them on their home turf," he says.

Bush family friend Mr Oles voices similar views.

"His number-one job is to protect the country and he believes that in his heart. He's a good man doing what he believes is right and strong leaders are controversial."




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