AUSTIN, Texas -- You know how refreshing it is when someone in politics just up and tells the flat truth? I hope she doesn't get fired for it, but Mindy Tucker, a spokeswoman for the Bush campaign, did so after George W. got "off-message" and was forced to talk about the abortion issue for the Iowa caucuses.

He doesn't like to talk about the abortion issue.

"We have a message a day," said Ms. Tucker, "and we want to stick to it. We are not going to have one big, fat news conference on our schedule where everyone can come ask questions about what you think is the news of the day."

I like that. There it is, as they used to say during an unfortunate war.

I can see where campaign strategists would assume the media have no function other than to relay a candidate's message of the day, like a giant bullhorn. ("Message: I care," Big George Bush once said, cutting right to the chase.) But this does raise, once more, the delicate matter of W. Bush's ability to function outside "the bubble" so carefully created by Karl Rove & Co.

Karen Hughes, Bush's guardian and press secretary, then attacked the mild-mannered Cokie Roberts for being "disrespectful" to Bush on a Sunday chat show. Said disrespect consisted of trying, several times, to get Bush to answer the question: "Did you ever support higher taxes?" He kept replying that he had cut taxes, which doesn't actually answer the question.

As it happens, I think Bush is within his rights to answer that he never supported a tax increase, but it's one of those deals that requires some context. What Bush did -- alas, he did not succeed -- was support a tax shift that would indeed have put new taxes on some folks. Among those folks were the state's lawyers, doctors and CPAs, so you can imagine the lobby muscle that went into defeating that idea.

But the tax shift -- closing many of the egregious loopholes that have been lobbied into the state sales tax over the years, while giving some relief to average citizens -- would not have produced a single additional nickel in revenue for the state. I don't think it's fair to say it was a tax increase, as the state wouldn't have gotten any more money out of it. It was actually an effort to make the tax structure in this state fairer, and I'm sorry that Bush didn't have the clout or the leadership to get it passed. (It was defeated by the lobby and the Republicans.)

Of course, it wasn't Bush's idea to begin with. It actually came from a select committee of powerful chairmen in the Democratic House, but he did get on board.

Now, Bush could have explained that to Ms. Roberts, who is not exactly a hardball interviewer, but instead he stayed "on message" ("I cut taxes"), which is one of the worrisome things about his campaign. One consistently gets the impression that Bush is not thinking or explaining, but parroting what he has been told is the right answer.

It was sort of painful to hear him try to address questions he didn't have a canned answer for. Should the Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez be given citizenship by Congress? Bush hadn't thought about it. This move has been mooted for two weeks now.

When Hughes was asked if reporters would be able to question Bush in a formal setting (rather than trying to get him to answer as he goes in and out of diners and cafes), she replied: "Are you here to cover the campaign? Then you'll be here to cover what Gov. Bush is doing next week. He'll be campaigning next week."

What made Bush's handlers so unhappy with the press is he was pushed into actually saying something about abortion -- to wit, "Roe v. Wade was a reach, overstepped constitutional bounds as far as I'm concerned" and "usurped the right of legislatures." He has long been in favor of a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortions, but he doesn't like to talk about it. He also said he would oppose RU-486, the abortion pill, even if it is approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

In a typical Bush straddle, Bush did not attend the Saturday night "Family, Faith and Freedom" rally at which the three social conservatives in the Republican race appeared. Bush sent a surrogate, Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri, in the same kind of maneuver that we have seen him pull so many times in Texas to avoid being identified with the Christian right while pulling their votes.

Those who saw Bush during the news conference when he was pressed on abortion, or during the Sunday chat show interview, now know how he clings to the message of the day. He doesn't seem to be able to handle anything he doesn't have a standard answer for. I recommend that he stick to his patented non-answers.

"Whatever's fair."

"Whatever's right."

"I'm all right on that."

"I'm for a balanced approach."

Meanwhile, among the D's, the conventional wisdom is that Al Gore has come roaring back from his early missteps and is now more effective in his full attack-Chihuahua mode. He is going after Bill Bradley for votes cast 20 years ago and is cheerfully distorting Bradley's proposals. Bradley keeps not deigning to respond, which has never been a clever strategy.

The fact that Gore is a slashing debater should worry those supporting W. Bush. If I were a who-can-win-in-November Republican, my money sure wouldn't be on Bush.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.