Washington — GEORGE BUSH put his Avenger bomber into a 35-degree dive and swooped toward the target. It was Sept. 2, 1944, and Japanese antiaircraft fire from Chichi Jima was intense. Black smoke puffed around the aircraft. Suddenly a shell slammed into the plane's belly. Flames quickly leaped toward the fuel tanks, and the cockpit filled with smoke. Lieutenant Bush kept diving, then dropped his four 500-pound bombs on target before heading to sea and bailing out.
Bush's grit and bravery that day won him the Distinguished Flying Cross. The combat experience also illustrated something that has become evident during the 1988 presidential campaign: Bush excels under fire.
David Chagall, a political analyst who covered Bush during his 1980 campaign, says:
``This man is at his best when under pressure.''
David Keene, a conservative Republican who worked for Bob Dole's presidential campaign this year, agrees with Mr. Chagall's assessment. He says:
``The '88 campaign retaught me what I already knew about Bush, something that is easy to forget. While George Bush has his problems as a candidate, those problems do not surface when he is under pressure. He's very good when he is behind. His problems historically come when he is doing well.''
Mr. Keene speaks from bitter experience. His candidate, Mr. Dole, staggered the Bush camp with an easy win in the Iowa caucuses in February, where Bush finished third behind Pat Robertson. Some political analysts thought Dole was poised to deliver a knockout blow to Bush in the New Hampshire primary a week later. But Bush stormed back with what many observers think was his best campaign performance of the primary season. He won in New Hampshire, and was never again threatened in the race for the GOP nomination.
This summer, when he trailed Michael Dukakis by 17 points in the polls, Bush again demonstrated some of the pluck that carried him through World War II as a combat pilot. He came out fighting at the Republican National Convention, and never let up. He showed the kind of determination that analysts say is essential to a successful politician.
``He's become a tough campaigner, a real fighter,'' says Thomas E. Cronin, a political scientist at Colorado College. ``He emerged from his marshmallow status as a slavishly loyal vice-president.
``Many of us thought he was sort of maimed because of that - the vice-presidency is a maiming kind of job. But he emerged and surprised a lot of people by his political abilities, shrewdness, and feisty style,'' Dr. Cronin says.
No one was more surprised than Governor Dukakis and his fellow Democrats. The fury of Bush's attacks stunned and angered them. Indeed, Mr. Dukakis seemed thrown off balance by Bush's relentless strategy - this from an opponent whom many Democrats expected to ``self-destruct.''
The resentment among Democrats was reflected recently by Mark Gearan, a Dukakis aide. He blames Bush's negative attacks for Dukakis's problems this fall. He says of Bush: ``When you lie and run a campaign based on rumor, innuendo, and distortion, it takes a toll'' on someone like Dukakis, who his supporters say is trying to run a positive race.
Some outside critics have also assailed Bush for running what they characterize as a trivial campaign - even, in some eyes, a mean-spirited one.
They point to Bush's repeated attacks on Dukakis for his 1977 veto of a bill that would have required Massachusetts public-school teachers to lead their classes in the pledge of allegiance. The true purpose of such attacks, these critics assert, is to impugn Dukakis's patriotism.
They also express distaste for Bush's assaults, in speeches and a stinging TV ad, on a Massachusetts policy that Dukakis inherited to give prison furloughs to first-degree murderers not eligible for parole (one such inmate committed a brutal crime during a weekend furlough). Critics have accused Bush of demagogy in suggesting that Dukakis is soft on crime.
The public is apparently less critical of Bush's campaign, however. Public opinion polls show new respect for Bush's strength, his leadership qualities, and his ability to handle crisis situations. With the advantage of hindsight, a Newsweek cover story in October 1987 headlined ``George Bush: Fighting the Wimp Factor'' now seems strangely anachronistic.
Says Chagall: ``You don't hear the word `wimp' anymore.''
If the Newsweek story was a benchmark of Bush's earlier political problems, today it serves as a reminder of how far he has come during the 1988 campaign.
A year ago, Newsweek noted that Bush ``does not project self-confidence, wit, or warmth to television viewers. He comes across instead to many of them as stiff or silly.''
Newsweek quoted a Bush friend saying: ``I die for him when he gives a speech.''
At the start of the campaign, an in-house Republican poll described the extent of Bush's perceived shortcomings. Voters complained that he was ``wishy-washy,'' ``not aggressive enough,'' and ``a rubber stamp for President Reagan.''
The public believed Bush was only a weak imitation of Ronald Reagan. They suspected that he lacked essential leadership qualities. Such perceptions ``could dog [Bush] when the campaign gets under way,'' the GOP study observed. It warned that Bush had low standing among young voters and urged the vice-president to ``develop a stronger personal image.''
Robert Teeter, who conducted the Republican survey, later became Bush's campaign pollster. It's now clear that the campaign took his advice. Most of the weaknesses Mr. Teeter detected have been corrected.
A `new' man
For example, a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that Bush leads Dukakis by wide margins as the leader better able to deal with a crisis, to maintain a strong national defense, to get tough on crime, to stand up to the Soviets, and to grapple with economic problems. He even outdid Dukakis on the drug problem, an area Democrats expected to dominate. The poll showed that 60 percent of Americans now think Bush would be as strong a leader as Reagan.
A Times Mirror survey had similar results. For dealing with the Soviets, for example, Bush was preferred over Dukakis by a 64 to 25 percent margin. For getting tough on crime, Bush came out on top, 49 to 36.
Claibourne Darden, an Atlanta pollster, says the two-year campaign for the White House has shown Americans that Bush ``learns well.'' He observes, ``Bush has made tremendous strides in improving himself.''
Mr. Darden gives Bush's staff some of the credit for the vice-president's performance. He thinks it bodes well for the country if Bush wins Nov. 8.
``A good president needs a good group in his Cabinet. It is a mark of smartness to be able to hire good people and learn from them.''
Darden also discounts criticism that Bush's ``handlers,'' including campaign manager Lee Atwater and campaign chairman James Baker III, are responsible for most of his success. The credit should mostly go to the vice-president, he says.
``Handlers is a rough word. You don't handle a presidential candidate. You work with them. When a candidate says no, it is no. The handlers are the hired help.''
On Mr. Atwater and Mr. Baker, Darden says: ``They aren't working with a blob of sticky putty. They don't get to form it any way they want to. Major changes do not work.''
Political analyst Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution echoes some of Darden's remarks. He says the campaign demonstrated a sharp contrast between Bush and Dukakis.
Of Bush, Mr. Hess says the campaign showed that ``he's educable.'' But of Dukakis, he says: ``You might want to ask, `Is he educable?' Knowing what he had to do, Dukakis did not do it'' - such as change his campaign style. ``Dukakis hasn't turned out to be a very flexible person, and maybe that [would be] a great liability if he were elected president.''
Hess notes earlier criticism of Bush, but suggests the campaign proves that the vice-president knows how to communicate with the American people. That could ``give him a much better chance to be a better president'' if he wins.
But what about criticism that Bush has lied and conducted a below-the-belt campaign?
``He's tough, obviously,'' says Hess. ``But when you get right down to it, when he suddenly becomes president and stands up to [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev, that is what we want. We are no longer talking about what we want in a friend or neighbor. If we need a [tough guy], he's [it], so that is a good sign.''
Mervin Field, a California pollster, says Bush has won over many voters by coming across as the genuine article.
``I talk to people who are close to Bush, and they say that personally he has a lot of warmth and personality. But I was a little cynical,'' Mr. Field says.
In the final debate, Bush appeared ``relaxed and confident'' and ``almost endearing,'' Field says. There was ``self-confidence'' and he was ``more disciplined.'' The man many people have described as pleasant in private finally came across that way on television, Field adds.
To a certain extent, the contrast with Dukakis also helps. The last debate showed the governor ``much too cool, much too arrogant,'' Field says.
Lacking a mandate?
Analysts say that most of what we have learned about Bush in the fall campaign is positive. This is no surprise. It is why his poll numbers have leaped, and why most experts say the race is essentially won for the Republicans, unless they commit an enormous mistake.
But is there a downside?
Perhaps, the political experts say. They note that while Bush does best under pressure, he tends to drift when the crisis is over. For that reason, he may well be a ``hands off'' administrator, in the Reagan style. That could lead to mistakes, like the Iran-contra affair. It could also allow the country to lag on problems that aren't boiling over.
In this regard, some experts point to Bush's choice of Sen. Dan Quayle for his running mate as the kind of mistake Bush makes when his concentration wanders. Since his nomination, Senator Quayle has been widely disparaged as a political lightweight, and the Democrats have used the selection to belittle Bush's judgment. Despite having months to consider his vice-presidential choice, Bush evidently waited until the last minute and had little consultation with senior advisers.
Bush has won praise from observers, however, for his vigorous defense of Mr. Quayle.
Professor Cronin also says that despite the long campaign, Bush hasn't laid out an agenda or asked for a mandate.
``One wonders where he really is,'' says Dr. Cronin. ``He was much more of a moderate, centrist Republican 10 years ago. But he has gone in a rightward direction, a fellow seemingly shaped by Republican [conservative] constituencies, rather than his own moderate upbringing.''
Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, says it is unclear whether Bush would be a man of action, or simply be a caretaker for the next four years. ``He has not sought, nor been given, a mandate. Whatever agenda he draws up, once the election is over he will have to make a case for it. If he does, he could use the honeymoon period'' to sell it to the country and to the Congress.
Even so, the public can make some preliminary conclusions about the direction he would take the country. A few samples:
Acid rain. Bush says it is time for action - not simply more studies. But solutions could be expensive, especially for industry in the Midwest.
Military spending. Bush sounds as hawkish as President Reagan. He insists that a tough stance is essential to negotiate with the Soviets. But he vows to work for a lower level of arms.
Budget deficits. Bush offers a ``flexible freeze'' plan on spending, which he says would gradually bring down the deficit. He opposes across-the-board freezes as too inflexible.
Federal taxes. Bush, like Reagan, opposes tax increases. ``Read my lips,'' he says. ``No new taxes.'' But Bush may have to eat his words unless spending is controlled better.
Foreign trade. The Reagan White House has gradually increased pressure on Europe and Japan to accept American goods. Bush opposes protectionism, but would probably keep pressure on trading partners.