Washington — Republican presidential candidate George Bush wants a campaign that focuses on issues. Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis is zeroing in on personal qualities, competence, and integrity. This has created frustration among White House political insiders, who say that Vice-President Bush is now beginning to move out front on such issues as child care, ethics, drugs, and the budget - but is not able to engage Governor Dukakis in a debate.
``The Democrats understand that George Bush does not have the persona of Ronald Reagan,'' says a Bush campaign adviser. ``So they don't want to talk about issues but want to hide Dukakis's failings on issues behind the notion of the Bush persona.''
The key to a Republican victory, the Reagan-Bush forces say, is not to let the campaign turn on personalities. But privately White House officials acknowledge that Bush has a ``personality problem,'' i.e., the continuing evaluation of him by political and news media observers as conveying ``wimpiness'' or ``silliness.''
In an effort to return the Republicans to office, the White House is now working closely with the Bush organization. White House chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein, in addition to managing the President's legislative agenda, is playing a major role in the Bush campaign, as are other White House aides. Paul Laxalt, former senator from Nevada and a Reagan confidant, is also involved.
Before too long Treasury Secretary James Baker III is expected to resign and take charge of the Bush campaign.
Worried by polls showing Michael Dukakis in the lead, some Reagan advisers expect the Bush forces to do something unexpected to capture headlines and public attention.
``Look for some dramatic event between now and the election,'' says Reagan pollster Richard Wirthlin. ``They need to get something started and take the play away from Dukakis before the convention.''
In Wirthlin's opinion, there are enormous pressures on Bush in the wake of the successful Democratic convention. But, he says, ``politically he has always risen to the challenge'' and will be a good candidate. Bush is a more savvy and effective debater today than two years ago, Wirthlin adds, and that will serve him well in debates with Dukakis.
At the convention, says Wirthlin, Bush must do three things: confirm the strength of his own leadership; talk about change in a credible way; and show that he is compassionate and caring. The latter objective is important, says Wirthlin, because polls show that social problems, above all drugs, are the number one concern of the American people.
Wirthlin, who worked for the Dole presidential campaign, continues to advise the President on public opinion and strategy.
Assessing the Atlanta convention, White House officials say the Democrats tried so hard to put themselves in the center of the ideological spectrum that they projected no image of where they want to take the country. That should give the Bush forces an opportunity, they add.
``We will highlight the differences in approach on the major questions of the day,'' says one aide. ``That was the major opening of the day for us.''
The Republicans hope to nail Dukakis on the issue of the economy, for example, arguing that he preaches about high employment and jobs but comes close to being protectionist and is disposed to more regulations on business.
They will also attack Dukakis on foreign policy, charging that he wants continued progress with the Soviets but does not favor policies, including the President's ``star wars'' program, that have made improved superpower relations possible.
A third area of assault will be on the question of law enforcement. The Republicans are already hitting Dukakis on some failures in Massachusetts' prison-furlough program. ``Is our criminal justice system supposed to punish or rehabilitate?'' the Reagan aide asks rhetorically. ``There are clear differences on the death penalty.''
Reagan advisers say ``sleaze'' is not likely to be an issue. They point to polls showing that the Reagan administration does not differ much from Congress in terms of the public's perceptions of ethical standards.
But Wirthlin adds a caveat. ``Sleaze'' could become a powerful issue, he says, if it is connected to wealth and big business. The GOP convention will not be as controlled as it should be in terms of the kind of people there, says Wirthlin. ``George Bush will be hurt by the symbols of power.''
Iran-contra is another issue troubling some Reaganites. ``Asking `Where was George?' is a good way to get the partisans going,'' a White House aide says, ``but I think the public has had their fill of the issue.''
Other GOP operatives are not so sure. ``That's the single most serious problem for George Bush,'' says one Reagan adviser. ``Bush said he was `out of the loop' and that's the hook he is on and cannot get off....''
White House strategists say that a high voter turn out would help Republicans more than Democrats because the marginal voters now vote Republican. This is where President Reagan's role is deemed important - he can urge young voters and the group aged 50 to 55 to vote. The race is expected to be tight, say aides, and Reagan can be helpful in selected states.
``The President, to the extent he brings some enthusiasm to the race, will do so to the benefit of Republican candidates ... ,'' says Frank Donatelli, White House political director.