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Don't Overestimate Bush's Weakness

As Campaign '92 moves into Super Tuesday, President Bush - while he has problems - isn't as wounded as he is portrayed to be. The voters' discontent, though real, has been exaggerated, and the Democrats still must produce a strong challenger. Bush seemed vulnerable in 1988, too.

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Some politicians benefit from good fortune. George Bush has thus benefited three times in his White House days: When Ronald Reagan made him his vice president in 1980; when Reagan anointed him as his successor in 1987 and 1988; and now when the Democrats have done everything a Republican could ever ask of them.

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4. Bush's position is not "strong," but neither is it "highly vulnerable." The president surely has his share of political problems, some self-inflicted, others accruing from circumstances significantly beyond his control. Among the latter: the fact that his party has held the presidency for 12 years running; and that the economy, while technically out of recession, has been standing still for two years.

The remarkable thing, then, is probably not that various measures of Bush's political standing show marked decline, but that they have remained substantially high. After five months in which he has taken a pretty ferocious pounding, Bush's approval stands around the 40 percent mark - where, I suspect, it will subsequently be seen to have bottomed out.

Few political figures in modern times have had more of a roller coaster ride politically than George Bush. If one compares his position now to what it was one year ago, he looks weak. But if one compares it to that of the winter, spring, and early summer of 1988, he looks fairly healthy. Trial heat pairings bounce around, but the sampling contained in the accompanying Chart 1 is, I believe, reasonably representative of where Bush stood for much of the 1988 campaign.

When Pat Buchanan got 37 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire GOP primary Feb. 18, it was, we were assured by a pride of commentators, a "devastating blow." Of course, much more apocalyptic things were said after Bob Dole's win over Bush in the 1988 Iowa caucuses.

At that time, Bob Schieffer of CBS News thought it was for Bush a "nightmare of nightmares." Larry Eichel of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that Dole had built his campaign on "a single premise ... that George Bush, once cut, will bleed to death. Bush ... got cut by Dole here [Iowa] last night - and cut far more seriously than anyone imagined possible." Bernard Shaw of CNN was relatively restrained, calling the Iowa result simply "a stunning upset."

Trial heats this year show Bush in a better position than he was in '88. He has been shown leading every conceivable challenger - the announced Democratic candidates, and such unannounced favorites as Dick Gephardt and Mario Cuomo - in virtually every poll pairing. The accompanying Chart 2 provides some examples.

A chief reason why Bush has survived bouts of dissatisfaction with his "wimp factor," lack of "vision," preppy syntax, etc., is shown by the data in Chart 3.

Now at the lowest point in his presidency, 82 percent of the public find Bush "decent," 76 percent "knowledgeable," 71 percent "moral," 68 percent "intelligent." The softer edges, which have often hurt Bush on the "leadership" dimension, have helped in personal terms.

All in all, at this point in the campaign George Bush is down but by no means out.

He remains the favorite - though now in no small part as a result of the Democrats' failure to bring forth a candidate widely seen as presidential.