Every summer, my wife and I take our kids to a little cabin in the Catskill mountains that we purchased as newlyweds almost two decades ago. It's a time for us to relax, see old friends--and hear what people are thinking outside the bubble of New York City. Since our house is near Woodstock, of '60s rock-and-roll fame, we come across a lot of old-fashioned liberals. But I've also made friends with a fair number of conservative Republicans who like to hunt deer in the fall and play golf at the local nine-hole course. This year, when talk turned to the election, what I heard from folks of both stripes was a lot more disdain for the candidate they oppose than affection for the guy they support. And again and again, I heard people say: I wish there was someone else I could vote for. (And no one was referring to Ralph Nader.)
As I listened to my vacation focus group, it also became clear that this election will be as much a referendum on Bush's personal style as it will be about the state of Iraq or the economy. The upstaters who are for him admit that he's made mistakes but still like the way he speaks his mind and stands his ground, and view John Kerry as a hopeless equivocator. Those who are anti-Bush hate the swagger and black-and-white rhetoric, and believe we need a more complex thinker for today's complex world. But if W's way is so controversial, where does it come from? As Evan Thomas finds in this week's cover story, it's not just a reflection of his political beliefs. His modes of thinking and acting are also rooted in formative factors in his personal life: his ambivalent relationship with his genteel father; the influence of his blunt, combative mother; and most of all the mixture of iron discipline and religious certainty that he has relied on to stay sober for 18 years.
As the Republicans take Manhattan, we offer a lot more to chew on in our GOP convention special. Howard Fineman assesses whether Bush can still sell himself as a compassionate conservative--and Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball weigh the potential damage from the discovery of a suspected Israeli spy in the Pentagon. Jonathan Alter ponders why Democrats can't fight dirty. Ever the maverick, John McCain tells Melinda Henneberger why he admires both Bush and Kerry. And in photos edited by Michelle Molloy, Charles Ommanney takes you behind the scenes with Bush's team and we spotlight some star Republicans already casting an eye on 2008. As always, at NEWSWEEK we think it's never too early to look ahead at who's next.