Stunned, Bush Again Has to Prove That He's a Winner

START with the obvious - that the voters of New Hampshire sent the president a message. The recession is hitting them hard and they don't think George Bush has jumped in the way he needs to if he's going to help them out.

It was a protest vote of sizable proportions. Also quite obviously, the president now is trying to show he's aware of these economic problems and is taking steps to bring about better times.

But it was a story that lost a bit of what is sometimes called the "amazement" factor as the election day progressed in New Hampshire. At midday the radio reported President Bush and Pat Buchanan were running even in exit polling. That astounding news caused a stir.

Presidential political advisers were reeling - and convening to plan what to do about the impending disaster.

Political writers everywhere were already preparing stories along this big-upset line. But that afternoon the exit polls were changing, some hour by hour. Bush was now in the low-50s and Mr. Buchanan in the mid-40s. Radio and TV reports varied. By evening the spread had lengthened. And by late night Bush moved from 56 to 57 percent in the actual voting, with 90 percent of the precincts reporting and with Buchanan at 41.

The next morning with 98 percent of the vote in, Bush was up to 58 percent, Buchanan at 40. Then later in the day with all the vote apparently counted, it was Bush 59 percent, Buchanan 41. But whoops! A few hours later we hear there's been some kind of a mix up. The write-ins had not been counted. And with them included now, Bush was at 53 and Buchanan at 37.

This was the final tally! In boxing it might have been called "the long count."

Anyway, before the election Buchanan was supposed to have to reach 40 percent in order to deliver a consequential blow to Bush. He did it in the Tuesday count from which all the damage assessments were made in the media.

If the actual 53 percent to 37 percent totals finally arrived at on Wednesday had been out there in front of the pundits and commentators on Tuesday night, might they have watered down their assessments on just how hard Bush had been hit - at least a little bit, and maybe a significant amount?

But New Hampshire's impact now is indelibly written. Buchanan has not become another Eugene McCarthy. That is, he hasn't dislodged a president - and there's little indication he will. But he embarrassed Bush more than a little. Also, he gave life to his own candidacy. And he did this while losing by nearly 20 points.

I'm somehow reminded of the story that has been given much attention of late about the president's amazement on encountering a supermarket scanner. This has been used by Bush's critics as a typical example of how little the wealthy, privileged Bush knows about how most of the people of this country live.

This account of Bush's supposedly naive behavior was written by a newsman who never saw the incident. And it has been debunked by other reliable members of the media. Writes Newsweek, which screened the videotape of Bush's supermarket visit, "Bush acts curious and polite, but hardly amazed."

Yet, despite assertions by presidential press secretary Marlin Fitzwater that the story was "totally manufactured," the apparent myth has taken on a life of its own as an established "fact." Look at all the editorial cartoons that have used it as their device for joshing the president and "revealing" his insensitivity to the masses.

Bush did get whacked in New Hampshire. It was real - though, I contend, somewhat overstated. A much better measurement of the president's current problems is how far he has fallen in public favor since a year ago.

Remember? This was the same Bush who masterminded the management of the Gulf war. Last February he was a national hero. His approval rating was in the 80 percent range, setting a record. The assessment from almost everyone, including potential rivals, was that he was unbeatable in 1992. And so he seemed, until the recession really began to bite recently.

With the New Hampshire vote, Bush knows he's mortal. He knows he's vulnerable. And he'll now take on Buchanan with no holds barred. He must get rid of his pesky Republican rival before he can take on the Democrats.

An easing recession - which appears to be on the way - may help him. A wife who is loved by just about everyone, and who will be out there campaigning, will help him too. But Bush realizes he's in for a fight and that he must once again show that he is a winner. rGodfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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