CRAWFORD, Texas — Republican candidate George W. Bush retreated Friday to the serenity of his 1,600 acre ranch set among the spreading oaks, broad savanna and dramatic canyons he calls "great therapy" to make the biggest decision of his presidential campaign.
Driving himself in a Chevy Suburban, one hand on the wheel and dog Spot on his lap, the Texas governor was relaxed and proud as he hosted the first tour of the yet-unnamed property destined to become the Western White House, his getaway from the real thing in Washington, if he wins the Nov. 7 election.
"You never forget you're running for president," Bush told reporters riding with him. "But this gives me perspective. It gives me a lot of balance."
Bush tries to spend as many weekends as possible at the ranch, about 120 miles from the governor's mansion in Austin, where he said he likes to rise early, run, and then take a long walk or a hike among the seven canyons despite temperatures above the century mark.
But this weekend, he will have a weightier decision to make—his choice of a vice presidential running mate.
"I'm going to make up my mind here ... There will be no visitors at the ranch this weekend," he said before hosting a tour and a picnic lunch at the temporary farmhouse he and wife Laura renovated while a new home is under construction.
Leading a convoy of media in pick-up trucks and vans along dusty roads, across grassy plains with no discernible trails and down tree-lined inclines, Bush kept up a running commentary on the history of the area—it was originally German farm country—the flora, the fauna and his plans.
He bought the ranch a year ago this summer and is clearly captivated by it. During the two-hour tour, he frequently stopped himself, saying he thought he was boring the 25 or so reporters invited along.
"I fell in love with it, the beauty of the place," he said, adding that in the evening he liked to get in an old truck alone with Spot, his 11-year-old springer spaniel, and simply roam around.
"I'm what they call a 'windshield rancher,"' he explained. "I get in my pickup and drive all over the place ranching through the windshield. When you come out here in the evening it is just full of game."
As if on cue, Bush pointed out a white-tailed deer silhouetted among the trees. He said he also has spotted wild turkey, foxes, skunks, raccoons, possums and armadillo.
Ironically, the stone-clad house the Bushes are building is scheduled for completion on election day and will be "unpretentious." Bush has left the decor to his wife, asking only for a king-size bed, a good shower and comfortable chairs for the porch.
The ranch, on which a foreman runs 200 head of cattle, including three longhorns that Bush has named Ophelia, Elton and Logan, lies about eight miles from Crawford, a small town hard by the railroad tracks.
The rustic town of 708 people, one intersection and no hotels, as well as the ranch, stand to become places of international significance if Bush wins the White House, following in the tradition of former Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan who hosted foreign dignitaries, signed legislation and held important meetings at their spreads in Texas and California.
One steep path leading out of a deep canyon already has been named "Balkans Hill" because, Bush explained, that was where during a long walk, foreign policy adviser Condoleezza Rice briefed him on the troubled region.
But a president can never completely escape the fishbowl that comes with the office, courtesy of the media and Secret Service protection, and even though Bush is the Republican nominee-in-waiting until Aug. 3 when he is formally tapped at the party's convention in Philadelphia and the election is more than three months away, Crawford has had a glimpse of what might be in store.
Agents have set up a post, traffic along the winding one-lane road occasionally backs up and the town has been visited by media from as far away as Japan.
But the entrance to the ranch remains a simple metal gate marked "Private Property."