Speculation about '88 upstages '84

George Bush has been a man on the go this week. In one 36-hour span, he was on a national television talk show, flew to Dallas aboard Air Force Two, made remarks to a welcoming rally, spoke to a group of party workers, hobnobbed at a Texas barbecue, and gave a political pep talk.

That wasn't all.

His schedulers had him addressing the New York delegation to the Republican Convention here, attending a GOP women's breakfast, hosting a luncheon for the mayor of Dallas, addressing a Jewish group, and talking at a reception for black delegates.

The fast pace continues today and tomorrow. It's enough to make some people think that Mr. Bush is running for ... president. In 1988, of course.

Officially, the vice-president indicates that he hasn't done any ''heavy thinking'' yet about 1988. In a newspaper interview, he said: ''I have got to spend the next 90 days just concentrating on 1984.''

That hasn't stopped anyone else here, however, from speculating about events four years hence. In fact, compared with all the talk about 1988 at this convention, 1984 looks rather calm.

Bush, as might be expected, is the first name most people mention. Like Walter Mondale in the Democratic Party, it's assumed by many that as vice-president, Bush will have the inside track to money, volunteers, and pole position when the '88 race gets under way.

There has been grumbling here among some quarters that moderate and liberal Republicans have been almost forgotten by the party. Yet Bush comes from the middle road of the party - and seems to be widely appreciated by most delegates here, including many conservatives.

That was reflected in a preconvention poll by the Dallas Morning News, which found that 47.7 percent of the 1,008 delegates surveyed favored Bush for the party's 1988 presidential nomination.

Bush was followed by New York Rep. Jack Kemp (25.6 percent) and Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee (16.2 percent).

Others mentioned include Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole (5.7 percent) and her husband, Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas (5.4 percent). Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana garnered 3.4 percent, while Lewis Lehrman, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in New York in 1982, got 2.8 percent.

Convention watchers should be able to get an early peek at just about all of these potential '88 candidates this week.

The convention will showcase a number of rising stars in the party, much as the Democratic convention showed off Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York last month. Bush, Mr. Kemp, Senator Baker, and others are slated to get at least 10 minutes on prime-time TV to show what they can do.

Yet there is much more to this early jockeying than just personalities and speaking styles. John Sears, a Republican strategist, has held the view for some time that the 1988 election could be a watershed in American politics, setting the political stage for the rest of this century.

Others here, such as GOP chairman Frank Fahrenkopf, hope the party is moving toward the time in the early 1990s when it can reclaim its pre-Roosevelt role as the majority party in the United States.

The coming struggle between the people like Bush, Kemp, Baker, the Doles, and Mr. Lehrman is more than just an effort to be No. 1. It will also be a struggle to point the party in the direction that the winner believes could bring Republicans back to their majority status.

This coming struggle is almost certain to pit members of the Old Guard - Baker, Bush, and Robert Dole - against Young Turks like Kemp and US Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia.

The Old Guard hews to more traditional Republican approaches, including economic policies that would address issues like the federal budget deficit in more traditional ways, such as higher taxes.

Kemp, Lehrman, Mr. Gingrich, and others argue for a conservative, lower-tax, free-enterprise policy that seeks to cut deficits through economic growth.

Ronald Reagan has stood somewhat in the middle of these contending groups - the old and the new, the moderate pragmatists and the conservatives. He has made them work together, and has seen the party pull together more harmoniously than at any time since the Eisenhower days.

If Reagan is reelected, the tugging and pulling between the wings of the party to pick a successor can be expected to begin almost immediately.

In that struggle, says GOP sage and longtime Reagan strategist Lyn Nofziger, Reagan can be expected to step aside and let the better man or woman win without interference. Even though Bush has been a Reagan loyalist, says Mr. Nofziger, neither he nor anyone else can expect any favoritism from the President.

At this moment, of course, the 1988 GOP presidential nomination looks like a valuable commodity.

But political scientist Stephen Hess of the Brookings Insitution, a veteran of the Eisenhower White House, cautions that a lot can change in another four years.

Right now the economy looks excellent. Just about every political indicator is pointing up. But Mr. Hess observes that after serving for eight years, the Republicans could expect ''the normal cycle of accumulated troubles.'' That, he says, usually causes the political pendulum to ''swing again,'' so that 1988 ''would look like another Democratic year.''

If Bush is the nominee, Hess says, he ''can't finesse the record of the Reagan presidency. He's stuck with it.''

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