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Optimism rampant as Austin sees a ‘W’

by John Tedesco
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All content (c) San Antonio Express-News

AUSTIN — They began calling him “President Bush” even before the ballots were tallied.

With election results still close late Tuesday, thousands of Texans celebrated with country music and victory speeches as if their governor’s triumph was foreordained.

It became apparent as the night wore on that Vice President Al Gore was keeping even with Gov. George W. Bush in the Electoral College, winning key states and even some unexpected victories. But the Texas optimism in Austin was hard to kill, and initially the victorious mood was overwhelming, even in the face of the unknown.

“There is only one thing left to say: Let the Bush-Cheney era begin!” Lt. Gov. Rick Perry cried at a street rally outside the Capitol.

Only minutes earlier, it was announced that Bush had lost the electoral votes of Michigan.

While the streets swarmed with the hopeful masses, the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Austin became a Republican stronghold, attracting big-dollar campaign supporters and politicos who rallied behind Bush.

“We’re going to have a great president,” U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, said as he made his way through the crowded lobby. “We’re going to make America look more like Texas, which is good, right?”

Downstairs in a packed conference room, Gramm’s colleague, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, announced: “This is going to be such a wonderful victory for Texas tonight.”

The possibility of Bush losing seemed akin to blasphemy.

“That’d be very strange, since I don’t expect that to happen,” Texas Attorney General John Cornyn said. “The real challenge is going to be when Bush goes to Washington.”

The governor’s absence would create a void that would be difficult to fill, Cornyn said.

Charles Wyly, an avid campaign supporter who, along with his brother, paid for a controversial campaign advertisement that attacked Sen. John McCain’s environmental record, said electing Bush as president was a sacrifice Texas had to make.

“We Texans have to be willing to give him up,” Wyly said.

Bush himself was supposed to watch the election results at the Four Seasons with his family, but about 50 minutes after he arrived at the Shoreline Grill for dinner, he changed plans and went to the Governor’s Mansion.

The decision came at about the same time television broadcasts announced that Gore had won Florida and Michigan.

“He preferred to be at home” because it was more relaxing, Bush aide Gordon Johndroe said.

Another Bush aide described the atmosphere in the Bush camp as optimistic but not celebratory.

“It’s certainly not a fait accompli,” said Greg Jenkins, Bush’s advance press director.

Bush, who finished campaigning late Monday night, began Election Day like any other — he fed the pets, brewed a pot of coffee and brought a cup upstairs for his wife, Laura.

At 7 a.m., the governor called his parents, George and Barbara Bush, and told them not to worry. When the elder Bush was running for president in past elections, his son had been the anxious one. Now the roles were reversed.

“They’re nervous for the vote,” Gov. Bush said later. “They’re nervous for me personally.”

Bush spent part of the morning reading the Bible and talking to the media. He appeared relaxed and resigned to his fate, whatever it might be.

“I trust the people,” Bush said. “I do. We poured our hearts and souls into this campaign. Our organization here in Austin and around the country worked hard, and the people are going to decide.”

At 10:30 a.m., George W. and Laura Bush cast their votes at the Travis County Courthouse, a block away from the Governor’s Mansion. A crowd of spectators and reporters packed the structure’s front entrance.

“Hanging in there,” Bush told a bystander who asked how he was doing.

“Nervous,” Laura Bush replied when a reporter asked how she felt. She touched her stomach, as if she felt squeamish, but she added it was nice to be home.

“I feel good. We got a lot of sleep in our own bed,” Laura Bush said.

Her husband had been on the campaign trail since June 1999.

The election became a reunion of sorts for the Bush family. His brother, Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, arrived Tuesday in Austin, along with his parents and other members of the Bush clan.

The streets in front of the Capitol were jammed with television trucks as workers prepared for a rally in which 20,000 people were expected to arrive.

Bush supporters, both in Austin and around Texas, touted Bush as a bipartisan candidate who would extend a hand to Democrats if he makes it to the White House.

“He’s worked with Republicans and Democrats and independents to solve problems,” Bexar County Judge Cyndi Taylor Krier said. “I think that brings about much better government.”

“He’s the kind of person we need to pull the country together,” said U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio.

Outside the Capitol, the crowd erupted into cheers as if they were watching a football game — applauding whenever news came that Bush had won a state.

jtedesco @ express-news.net

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