NO one is arguing that the president isn't lagging badly in this election. Over breakfast a few mornings ago Bush spokesman Charles Black talked about the uphill fight ahead. He wasn't throwing in the towel - not by any means. But he admitted that catching up was going to be difficult.
What the president's campaign camp isn't admitting, however, is a problem it must solve if a come-from-behind victory is to be carved out: Many rank and file Republicans simply aren't "coming home" to their party, despite appeals from Mr. Bush and others at the convention.
The president evidently feels he is reaching out to all Republicans when he stresses what he calls "family values." He fails to realize, however, that a lot of Republicans, both moderates and conservatives, oppose an education program that provides parents with public funds to send their children to parochial schools if they wish. These Republicans see this as a violation of the separation of church and state - and they don't like it at all.
Also, a great many Republicans oppose Bush's pro-life position because it leads inevitably, as they see it, to a large increase in the number of children on welfare - for which the taxpayer must pay.
Additionally, many Republicans believe that the so-called tax reform shaped by Ronald Reagan and continued by Bush placed an unacceptable burden on middle-income Americans.
The other day I explored this subject with a leading Republican who had just come back from meeting with a group of prominent citizens in California. "They all were upset with Bush," he said, "and almost all of these people would be Republicans."
Why were they so critical of the president? "They just don't feel that Bush has taken the steps necessary to end this recession."
He went on to say that Bush had made "some terrible appointments," citing Clarence Thomas, John Sununu, and Sam Skinner as examples. "As of now," he said, Bush "is a loser."
What seems significant to me is that so many Republicans are focusing on Bush's deficiencies, not Bill Clinton's. That's exactly what Mr. Clinton's campaign strategists want.
And in their unhappiness - even anger - with Bush, these Republicans are ignoring the major issue in this campaign: the contrast between the president's position that a hands-off policy will revive a fundamentally healthy economy and Clinton's plan to heavily involve government in shoring up the economy and solving social problems.
The Clinton people call the "spending" envisioned in their economic plan "investment." But the battle line is clear, even if many Republicans aren't looking: Republicans favor less government and spending and Democrats push for more government and spending.
Where will unhappy Republicans go at election time? Right now many indicate they just won't vote. Others say they will vote for Ross Perot if he is on the ballot - and he will be in a large number of states.
Actually, from the moment he "dropped out" of the race it was clear that more Republicans than Democrats were sticking with Mr. Perot. That's what has helped Clinton so much in the polls.
We all know that the recession, more than anything else, has dragged Bush down. I don't think many observers of politics would argue that Clinton would be ahead of Bush today if the economy had turned up and business was brisk - as was predicted by most economists back in 1990 and 1991.
With a healthy economy, doubtless, the Republicans drifting away from Bush would never have "left home." Their present harsh criticisms would be buried within an overall feeling of content. Indeed, they would probably still be hailing the Bush "victory" in Iraq.
Republicans who oppose Bush should not overlook the obvious: When they criticize the president they only help Clinton.
And if they don't vote for Bush, they will participate in the election of a candidate who holds a philosophy toward government that most Republicans (conservatives and moderates alike) have fought against for years.