WASHINGTON — GEORGE BUSH got what he wanted - an all-important political "bounce" coming out of the Republican National Convention. Now the question is: Will it last?
No sooner had GOP delegates headed home than the good news started pouring into Bush campaign headquarters. The Los Angeles Times and CBS News both found President Bush rapidly gaining on Democrat Bill Clinton in the final hours of last week's convention.
The political picture, however, was confused. Less than 48 hours later, Newsweek reported the gap was widening again, with Governor Clinton moving out to a 53 percent to 39 percent margin.
Top Bush campaign officials expect the polls to seesaw for the next two weeks as voters are pounded with political charges and countercharges from both major parties.
As he stumped across the South this weekend, the president repeatedly criticized Governor Clinton's character, while the Arkansas governor's aides countered that Bush and his campaign were lying about Clinton's proposals on taxes and the economy.
With the Labor Day start of the fall campaign just two weeks away, the White House strategy to derail Governor Clinton has become clearer. It includes at least four elements:
First, criticize the governor on a personal level. Portray him as "the failed governor of a small state" who is inexperienced in foreign policy, immoral in his personal relationships, and unfit to be commander in chief because he dodged military service during the Vietnam war.
In his acceptance speech in Houston, the president attempted to belittle the governor's courage. He charged that, during the Gulf war, Clinton "bit his nails" rather than support American military forces.
Second, rally a large base of conservative voters, including ethnic Roman Catholics in the North and fundamentalist Protestants in the South. The president has appealed to these groups with a promise of federal tax dollars for religious schools, prayer in the public schools, and opposition to abortion.
This conservative strategy, which also includes ridicule of the Hollywood and media elites, was a central theme of the convention. But it has risks. Thumping the conservative drum too loudly could alienate moderate Republicans and independents in battleground states like California.
Third, denounce "tax and spend" Democrats, including Clinton, as a threat to the nation's economy, and to the pocketbooks of working Americans.
Republican officials in Houston hammered Clinton for his proposal to raise $150 billion in new taxes, particularly on wealthy Americans. They carefully avoided noting, however, that Clinton would offset much of the increase with tax cuts for the middle class.
Fourth, blame Congress for Washington gridlock. "Clean the House!" Bush cried at a Southern rally over the weekend. He charges the Democratically controlled House and Senate are blocking his economic recovery plan.
Bush says he wants lower government spending, tax relief, opportunities for small businesses, legal reform, health reform, job training, "choice" in schools, and open markets for American exports.
In his acceptance speech at the convention, he asked: "Why are these proposals not in effect today? Only one reason - the gridlock Democratic Congress."
In this first campaign of the post-cold-war era, Republicans no longer have the Soviet threat as a rallying point for their coalition, and that clearly is making their political task more difficult.
Lacking a foreign foe, Bush has zeroed in on domestic enemies. Besides Congress, always a popular target, he used the convention to aim fresh fire at radical feminists, gays, lesbians, Hillary Clinton (the governor's wife), trial lawyers, Hollywood, the liberal media, and at anyone who opposes government aid to church schools.
He told cheering delegates that "my opponent's campaign is being backed by practically every trial lawyer who ever wore a tasselled loafer."
Whether this attack strategy will work remains to be seen. Democrats say Bush is using social issues, like opposition to gay rights, to divert attention and escape blame for the slowest economic growth since the 1930s.
The public response remains in doubt. A survey taken Aug. 13-16 by Republican pollster Richard Wirthlin among 1,000 adult Americans found that 50 percent regard economic issues as their top concerns.
Another survey, completed Friday by the Los Angeles Times, found that only 3 percent consider "family values," the dominant Republican theme, as most important.
Republican insiders see a steep road ahead. One former Midwest congressman says gloomily: "California is gone. New York is gone." Dr. Wirthlin concurs with the California assessment, saying he is 99.9 percent sure that the state will go to Clinton.
New York and California would give Clinton nearly one-third of the votes he needs to take over the White House.