Washington — When will Ronald Reagan ``endorse'' George Bush? Soon, White House aides say.
It's no secret that the President backs his second in command as the Republican presidential candidate in 1988. But the White House will select some event in the near future at which Mr. Reagan formally puts his blessing on the Bush candidacy.
``Within the next 10 days we'll take a speech opportunity and lay out how helpful the vice-president has been to the President - and why, in the opinion of the President, George Bush should be the next president,'' says Frank Donatelli, White House political director.
Making a formal statement on behalf of Mr. Bush is only a part of what will be an accelerating presidential involvement in the '88 campaign. Aides say Mr. Reagan's political activities will gradually expand once the Moscow summit is over in early June.
Reagan is a consummate campaigner, and the GOP expects to use his skills on several fronts: to raise money for Republican Party coffers to support state and local races; to help shape the political debate and keep the agenda focused on issues of Republican strength; and to court specific ethnic and geographic groups, such as blue-collar workers, white Southerners, young people, and Californians.
So far the Reagan campaign effort is low-key. The President this week spoke at a fund-raiser in Chicago. Next week he will act as host at a dinner on behalf of the House and Senate Republican campaign committees, an event expected to yield between $5 million and $6 million. By late June, he will have touched base in such key states as California, Illinois, Florida, and Ohio.
Where the President will concentrate his fire after the conventions has yet to be determined, White House aides say. The Democratic convention is held first, and GOP strategists are waiting to see whom presumed nominee Michael Dukakis picks as his running mate and what his strategy will be - i.e., whether he elects to concentrate on the South or focuses on the industrial belt and the West.
GOP strategists in and outside the White House acknowledge, however, that it is not Reagan but Bush who must capture the attention of American voters. Bush's task, it is stressed, is to establish an identity and a vision beyond the Reagan presidency, while capitalizing on his association with Reagan.
``Bush has to be his own person,'' says a White House aide. ``He does not have to disagree or take issue with Reagan, but he has to establish himself. He has to convey `I am no longer vice-president - think of me as presidential candidate' and spell out what his presidency would mean. Voters expect him to come into his own now and that's the biggest challenge over the summer.''
The White House political shop will work closely with the Bush campaign organization. ``Bush will have to devise his own strategy,'' a White House official says. ``They will have to tell us what they would like us to do, and we've told them that within reason we'll do it.''
To give Bush his hour in the sun, the President will spend only a day and a half at the Republican convention in August. He will give an address Monday night, the first day of the convention, and receive what is expected to be an outpouring of affection and appreciation. This will be Reagan's last formal appearance at a Republican function and, aides say, his address will set the tone for the fall campaign.
But the convention will be Bush's. Reagan will depart Tuesday, leaving it to Bush to talk about the future, whip up party enthusiasm, and, in the words of one White House aide, ``get the biggest bounce possible'' out of the convention.
On the fall campaign trail the President will stress the theme of progress made under his administration at home and abroad. ``Dukakis is trying to assume the good results of the Reagan years while repudiating the President's policies,'' says Mr. Donatelli. ``So we have to remind people how bad things were eight years ago.''
A concerted effort will also be made to boost Republican candidates in Senate races and at the state legislative level. About one-half of the 33 Senate seats up for election this year are viewed as ``up for grabs.''
``Ronald Reagan cannot take a person in trouble and put him over the top,'' Donatelli says. ``But if a good candidate needs a boost, the President can be very helpful.''
If George Bush does well, White House planners say, the Republicans have a ``fighting chance'' of recapturing control of the Senate.