GEORGE BUSH has had a tough week. Two national polls and a statewide poll in California showed him trailing Michael Dukakis by gaps of 10 points or more. The rekindled controversy over Edwin Meese, fanned by the attorney general's firing of his chief spokesman, Terry Eastland, has burdened the vice-president politically. So have reports of an administration ``deal'' with Panama's General Noriega. And then, of course, there was Gov. Michael Dukakis's confident victory in the Oregon primary - a primary that Mr. Bush also won, but which gave his one-time competitor, Sen. Bob Dole, a surprising 18 percent of the vote.
What it all points toward is the likelihood of a close, hard-fought campaign this fall.
With Ronald Reagan leaving after the first two-term presidency in nearly three decades, Americans are nearing a plebiscite not just on Bush versus Dukakis or Democrats versus Republicans, but on the role they want government to play in their lives.
Interestingly, a New York Times/CBS poll this week indicated a swing among voters toward favoring bigger government with added services. Pollsters haven't found that kind of inclination since 1976. It's a bit of poll data that has to encourage the Democrats.
Things aren't totally barren for Bush, however - or, rather, totally bright for the Democrats. The economic news this week is good. And the same polls that boosted Mr. Dukakis's standing indicated he's still an unknown to many voters, leaving plenty of room for Republican attacks in the months ahead.
Also, the Rev. Jesse Jackson has been making louder noises about dissatisfaction with his party's method of choosing convention delegates and about his determination to play a major role in shaping both the ticket and the platform. If things get too divisive, the Democrats could again wilt in the public's eye.