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Pivotal week for Bush. SPOTLIGHT ON THE GOP

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GEORGE BUSH, like a star quarterback whose team is losing the championship game, now begins a pivotal drive that he hopes will turn the contest around. As Republicans gather today in steamy New Orleans, Vice-President Bush will have little time to enjoy the sights in this beautiful city. He faces one of the most pressure-packed weeks of his career.

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Once favored to win the presidency, Mr. Bush has battled since June against slumping polls and sliding confidence. Michael Dukakis, his Democratic opponent, has shown unexpected strength.

The made-for-TV convention, a four-day extravaganza in the Superdome, will whip up the partisan fans like a giant pep rally. But Bush still must call the plays that will overcome the Democrats.

Although polls have gotten closer in recent days (one tracking poll even showed Bush slightly ahead), pundits rate the vice-president an underdog as Governor Dukakis cuts into Bush strength in every corner of the country.

Political analyst John Chubb says Bush's goal at this week's convention is straightforward: ``He needs to pick up 10 points in the polls.''

To make that happen, Bush must do at least three things.

First, he must choose a vice-president who won't drive away either mainstream or conservative voters.

It's a delicate task. Already, 35 conservative groups, united as the ``Coalition for a Winning Ticket,'' are pressuring Bush to pick someone from their wing of the party.

Yet Bush might feel the need to go the other way - with a moderate running mate. It may be the only way to attract more independents and Democrats.

Second, Bush needs to weaken Mr. Dukakis.

A GOP consultant, William Feltus, says: ``The Republican convention has got to start educating people about Michael Dukakis.''

Mr. Feltus explains: ``This guy [Dukakis] has lived and worked in a hotbed of American liberalism for all of his adult life. There are a lot of things he has done that people are not aware of, like vetoing a bill that would require the pledge of allegiance to the flag.''

Lee Atwater, the Bush campaign manager, says the process of education begins with a series of speeches Tuesday night. Party officials say they will avoid the kind of personal attacks heard at the Democratic convention.

But at a breakfast meeting yesterday, Fred Malek, the Bush convention manager, suggested that reporters contrast Bush's large circle of personal friends with those of Dukakis. As he put it: ``I wonder how many friends Michael Dukakis has? And I wonder how warm, and personable, and outgoing he is felt to be by those around him.''

Third, Bush must tell America what he is all about. He must share his vision of the future.

That process begins Thursday night. For the first time, Bush will stand in front of the American people as the presidential nominee, rather than as the No. 2 man to Ronald Reagan.

Political scientist Tom Cronin of Colorado College says the speech will be Bush's great opportunity to clear up doubts about his leadership qualities.

Mr. Cronin says every presidential election is decided on three factors: the economy, foreign policy and defense, and leadership. It is the last of these where Bush is weak, and that the speech must address.

Can Bush pull it all off?

Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar, suggests he might - if only because of ``tremendously low public expectations.''

But Cronin warns: ``If Bush fails, he's in trouble.''

Republicans have choreographed the week's events down to the smallest detail, including a minute-by-minute schedule orchestrated for TV, and a specific political goal for each evening's events. Aboard a paddlewheel boat on the Mississippi River, Atwater went through those goals day by day:

Monday. With President Reagan as the principal speaker, lay out the record of the past seven years. Recall the improvements in inflation, interest rates, and employment. Point to the new arms treaty with the Soviets.

Tuesday. Compare Dukakis and Bush on the issues. Focus particularly on defense. Emphasize Dukakis's record of raising taxes.

Wednesday. Show why Bush is qualified. Detail his record and experience. Compare that record with Dukakis's.

Thursday. Look toward the future. In his acceptance speech, Bush will tell what he believes in, and where he hopes to take the country.

Republicans want to build public interest through the week, especially by holding the name of the vice-presidential choice secret until Thursday.

Atwater recalls that interest in the Democratic convention dropped from 26 million network viewers on Tuesday to only 22 million when Dukakis spoke two nights later.

Republicans want to beat those numbers, and see their ratings peak Thursday night, Atwater says.

Convention highlights Monday Convention call to order Reports from Republican congressional committees Speakers include: Former Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole

Rep. Jack Kemp (N.Y.)

President and Mrs. Reagan Tuesday Reports from Platform, Rules, and Credentials Committees Keynote address: New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean Speakers include: Former United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick

Pat Robertson

Former President Gerald Ford Wednesday Presidential nomination and balloting Nomination speech: Sen. Phil Gramm (Texas) Speakers include: Former Secretary of Education William Bennett

Secretary of Labor Ann McLaughlin

Sen. Robert Dole (Kan.) Thursday Vice-presidential nomination and balloting Acceptance speeches:Vice President George Bush

Vice-presidential nominee Speakers include: Barbara Bush

Illinois Gov. James Thompson