By ROGER FRANKLIN herald correspondent
NEW YORK - When George Prescott Bush - the former President's grandson, the current candidate's nephew and son of Florida's popular Governor Jeb Bush - received a movie star's welcome at this week's Republic National Convention in Philadelphia, there must have been at least a fleeting moment when he reflected with satisfaction on all the difference a few years can make.
It certainly was not that way at his first convention, when he became a pint-sized embarrassment to the party's exalted poobahs.
It happened as the extended Bush clan was being introduced to former President Ronald Reagan, who became a little fuddled at the sight of the dark-skinned youngster with the head of tight Latino curls inherited from his Mexican-born mother, Columba.
In those days, so the joke went, Republicans looked to Latinos only when the lawn needed mowing.
If you watch the old news footage of that encounter, you can almost hear the cogs clicking in the delicate machinery of the Reagan mind: The child could not possibly be a Bush, not this dusky cuckoo in a nest of WASPs! The little chap must belong to one of the waiters, perhaps a dishwasher from the kitchen.
"That's okay," Vice-President George reassured the old gent, whose hearing was going even faster than his wits. "That's one of Jebby's kids from Florida - the little brown ones." The comment was just loud enough to be picked up by a TV crew's microphone, and it cost the future President dear.
In the weeks that followed, Hispanic Democrats tore strips off Bush the Elder. "See," they sneered in a score of different ways, "these haughty Republicans can't stand Latinos - even in their own families."
Though Bush shrugged it off as an innocent family joke, the damage was done. With the exception of Florida's Cubans, who would elect a ham sandwich if it was likely to disagree with Castro, Hispanics never again gave Bush any support that was worth a pollster's trouble to measure.
This week, the George P. Bush who arrived in the City of Brotherly Love was a lot bigger and every bit as brown as the little boy who fazed Reagan. But this time, everywhere he went, the young man was mobbed by admirers, well-wishers, cameras crews and autograph-seekers.
Trailing him was a small team of handlers that looked suspiciously like the nucleus of a political campaign team in the making. There was a woman to hand out publicity kits, a bodyguard to keep admirers at bay, and a paid spokesman to amplify the neophyte politician's remarks.
Presidential aspirant George W. Bush is the third generation of his family to make a career in politics; if you were to judge by the buzz in Philadelphia, then George P., who came to town as the chairman of the Young Republicans, is well on the way to representing the fourth.
"He's gorgeous! Like a smart Ricky Martin," gushed Gretchen Geraghty, a college student from California who was at the convention with her mother, a delegate. People magazine, which recently placed George P. fourth on its list of eligible bachelors, has likened the Republican poster boy to John F. Kennedy jun. Unlike Kennedy, however, George P. has no known interest in learning to fly, which has to be a good omen.
A mediocre student whose greatest talent was hustling suckers with a pool cue in Rice University's student lounge, he is chiefly remembered by classmates - the ones who can remember him at all - for his friendship with singer Enrique Iglesias and the success they enjoyed with the ladies. About politics, he kept his opinions to himself.
"Of course, some of us would like to see them coming out of the womb with their fist in the air," lamented Tatcho Mindiola, the head of Rice's Chicano studies department, who recalled George P. as entirely apolitical.
He had no interest in celebrating the Hispanic side of his heritage, preferred "George" to "Jorge" and never joined the Latino students' group, whose separatist views would have appalled his family.
Nor did he give Mindiola a chance to heighten his ethnic awareness.
So his emergence as the Republicans' Hispanic standard-bearer came as quite a surprise to the Rice campus - although Mindiola concedes the affable, confident young man, "certainly has what it takes ... if he chooses to go into politics and continue the Bush tradition."
To anyone who is familiar with the family's methods, however, George P.'s rising star fits the pattern that has seen the clan eclipse the Kennedys as America's foremost political dynasty.
George W. took the exact same path, in his case an apprenticeship in the dark arts of political warfare at the feet of the late Republic strategist Lee Atwater, his father's legendarily slick 1988 campaign manager.
Now George P. is getting much the same sort of education from his uncle's handlers.
For six months, the Bush machine has been shuttling the 24-year-old around the country - to just about anywhere, in fact, where there is the slightest chance that local Hispanics can be persuaded to mark their ballots in favour of his Texan uncle.
The reception, while never rapturous, has always been good, and sometimes excellent. At New York's Puerto Rican Day march, female admirers hung their panties on their aerial of his car.
"If he wanted to run for a congressional seat, it wouldn't take much to be nominated," a Republican strategist noted. "Latino is hot! He's the right man in the right party at the right time."
Like Democratic rival Al Gore, George W. peppers his speeches with snatches of Spanish whenever the moment seems appropriate.
It is always a nice touch, a cheerful concession to the multiculturalist creed both parties now endorse. But as a tactic on the stump, any candidate who thinks a few Berlitz phrases will make much difference in el barrio is just plain loco.
It is all very well to know that one savours Cervantes at the library and cerveza at the pub, but for the Republicans to entertain any realistic hope of wooing Hispanics away from the Democrats, they know a radical new approach is needed.
In Philadelphia, where the conventioneers outdid the Vienna Boys Choir in their pursuit of photogenic harmony, George P. was hailed as that secret weapon. He has already proven both useful and sure-footed. When George W. was blasted for speaking at Bob Jones University, a college that paints the Pope as an agent of Satan, his indignant nephew raced to the defence.
How could the candidate possibly be anti-Catholic? Brother Jeb, George P.'s father, is a Catholic convert, he is Catholic, and so is an entire branch of the Bush family tree!
When George W. arrived in Philadelphia on Thursday for the convention, his nephew introduced the Governor at an Hispanic rally as "a President who represents the diversity of our society, who we can count on to change the Republican Party to start to represent our views."
He told the rally his mother had instilled in him the values of Cesar Chavez, the Chicano activist who fought for rights of migrant farm workers in the US. "She told me we have to fight for our race, we have to find the leaders who represent us," he said in Spanish.
"I guess that some people think of me as the genie in the bottle," the young man told a college crowd in New Jersey during the primaries. "Bring me forth and I'll deliver three wishes in Spanish.
"That's a very shallow appraisal of what I believe I am bringing to my uncle's campaign for the presidency.
"What I hope I'm bringing is an opportunity for Hispanics to realise that being taken for granted [by Democratic politicians] for so long has not done us very much good at all. Really, it has hurt us."
Notice the "us," a collective pronoun that Republicans have never before had the guts, or the right, to use. If you can picture a tongue-tied dowager stammering an embarrassed apology to an aggrieved maid or gardener, that is pretty much the way it would have come across.
To Democrats in general, and Gore in particular, Hispanics are also a worry. While most still vote the party line, and will likely do so again this year, a growing middle-class - the sons and daughters of those maids and gardeners - has begun to question the old tribal allegiances. George W. won 49 per cent of the Hispanic vote to get re-elected in Texas two years ago.
In touch-and-go, must-win states such as California and New Jersey, even a slight shift in the Hispanic vote could rack up a few more of those vital Electoral College votes George W. needs to win the White House.
Blacks remain a locked-up, nailed-down Democratic fiefdom. Hispanics - at least enough of them to make a difference - are up for grabs.
"It's my ambition to open eyes of Latino voters to the opportunity my uncle will bring to all Americans," George P. said in Philadelphia.
It was standard boilerplate, even with the deft switch from English to Spanish and back again.
Funny thing, in either language, it was the word "ambition" that clung to the ear most of all.