WASHINGTON — SOME commentators have noticed tougher, more partisan tones from President George Bush lately and therein they see the early revvings of the 1992 presidential campaign. One administration official argues that the strong Bush talk has more to do with the nature of current issues, such as the civil rights bills working through Congress, than with the next election campaign. "A lot of it is circumstantial," the official says.
But for most of a year, Mr. Bush has been advised by some staff members to forsake bipartisan good humor and campaign head-on against the opposition Congress, Harry Truman-style.
Outside the White House, Republican politicos are beginning to talk only half-jokingly," says Republican pollster Fred Steeper - of "Kuwait, crime, and quotas" as the campaign hand grenades for '92.
At first glance, planning for a campaign in the White House might seem like an excess of caution. After all, only one Democratic opponent has entered the race so far.
Further, Bush is so popular, and so well-positioned currently on most key factors for his reelection, that some political scientists see an outside chance of a record-setting '92 landslide vote.
The next election, however, offers the GOP a more practical opportunity. More seats in the Democratic-controlled Congress are ripe for turnover than at any other time in a decade, says political scientist Stephen Wayne of Georgetown University.
The Republican Party has no reasonable chance of taking over the House of Representatives, but the Senate is within reach. "If the Republicans can close the [House] margin to 25 to 30 seats and win the Senate, then Bush would be where Ronald Reagan was," says Dr. Wayne.
Several factors make 1992 a promising year for turnover on Capitol Hill. New census figures will force the reshaping of many congressional districts, changing their political mix. Further, for various reasons, a high number of incumbents found themselves in surprisingly competitive races in 1990. Fifty of them saw their reelection margins drop by 10 percentage points, and 85 percent of all winning incumbents won with less than 60 percent of the vote, says Leslie C. Francis, executive director of the Dem o
cratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The Republican Party also rose to parity with the Democratic Party in voter self-identification during and after the Gulf war. In some polls, voters calling themselves Republicans surpassed those claiming the Democratic Party. The GOP has fallen off since the war, however, and is once again running behind the Democrats, as it has for decades.
There is a broad consensus that presidents - though good fund-raisers by virtue of their positions - can no longer do much to help their party in congressional elections. "I don't think presidents have coattails anymore," says Wayne.
The policy issue that political professionals expect to dominate many of the 1992 campaigns, whether presidential or congressional, is health care. "I think people see that it's not right," says Mr. Steeper.
Tom Griscom, former communications director in the Reagan White House and veteran campaigner, suspects that health care may partly supplant the tax issue that has dominated the past three presidential campaigns.
Health care would seem to be a natural issue for the Democrats, notes Steeper. Surveys routinely show the Democratic Party more trusted on matters of caring, as opposed to matters of strength. But he says that the public is also "cautious and wary, especially of expensive Democratic plans."
More-cynical observers are persuaded that actual policy debates will play no important role in the upcoming presidential race, only the symbolic messages that can be crafted around emotional issues such as racial quotas. "I am absolutely convinced," says Marjory Randon Hershey, an Indiana University political scientist, that matters of substance will not figure in the campaign.
To Steeper, and many other Republicans, the symbolic messages point up legitimate differences in values between the parties. "The Democrats still don't understand that," he says.
The White House is planning to organize a formal campaign team in late fall, according to spokesmen. In the most similar recent election, Reagan's in 1984, the campaign operation opened Oct. 17, 1983.
As in 1984, the White House chief of staff is likely to have a strong hand in the campaign. The campaign manager, however, is likely to be pollster and longtime Bush consultant Robert Teeter, whose political reputation is more moderate than White House chief of staff John Sununu's.
Barring a close race, Bush is likely to run a clean presidential campaign, most expert observers say. His advantages are comfortable enough that he can afford to stay on the high ground.
A close race is possible, primarily if the economy pulls a rare double-dip back into recession. Signs so far point toward economic recovery well under way by 1992. Bush no longer needs to prove himself to the public. To beat him, Democrats must convince the public that it is time for a change. Pollsters see no swell of such sentiment.