December 31, 1999 12:00 PM

Considering his famous name, there was an air of inevitability about Texas Gov. George W. Bush and his political aspirations-except, perhaps, in the mind of Bush himself. Asked recently by some Iowa schoolkids whether he had dreamed of the Oval Office when he was a child, he replied, “No, I didn’t want to be President when I was little.” Then, with a puckish gleam, he added, “I’m not even sure I wanted to be President when I was big-until recently.” But Bush, 53, whom the media have nicknamed “Dubya” (the Texas take on his middle initial) to distinguish him from his father former President George Bush isn’t wasting time now. A tireless campaigner he has amassed $63 million in contributions for his presidential race and transformed himself into the front-runner for the Republican nomination. “He would shake hands forever and never stop, ” says friend Rich Bond the onetime Republican party chairman “He just bursts into a room, this life force.” Now Bush must show voters that he has the requisite growth rings to be presidential timber The onetime oil executive and former co-owner of the Te as Rangers baseball team has already stirred controversy by refusing to confirm or deny whether he used cocaine during what he admits was an irresponsible youth. And in November, he stumbled when quizzed by a reporter on the names of four world leaders. Although Bush defied expectations by turning in solid performances debating his opponents, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, his strongest challenger, “his lack of knowledge and his brashness are bothersome,” says Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, a political think tank. Bush’s greatest appeal may be in his enviable sense of humor. He has joked about dedicating his new autobiography, A Charge to Keep, to the president of Chechnya, one of the world leaders he failed to name, and affably takes ribbing from twin daughters Barbara and Jenna, 18, over his rumpled campaign look. “They’ll say, ‘Dad, did you polish your shoes with a Hershey bar?’ ” says his friend Texas Lt. Gov. Rick Perry. Bush’s wife of 22 years, Laura, 53, a former librarian, says the candidate unwinds by reading. Two of his recent favorites were histories: Isaac’s Storm, about the 1900 Galveston hurricane, and Rising Tide, the story of the 1927 Mississippi flood. With the race about to enter its key phase, Bush is surely hoping that’s as close as he’ll get to disaster.

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