Politicians now look to watershed '88 election. Bush, Hart lead polls, but support called `soft'

Goodbye, 1986 election. Hello, 1988 presidential race. As the last cheer fades from this year's campaign, political attention immediately swings toward 1988 and the two frontrunners for the White House - Vice-President George Bush and US Sen. Gary Hart.

The 1988 race, jampacked with potential candidates, has created great anticipation in both parties. It should be a watershed election, according to analysts like Republican John Sears III, who says it will set the political stage for the rest of the 20th century.

Republicans, coming off eight strong years under President Reagan, hope their new leader will move the GOP into the status of the majority party.

Democrats, reeling after losses in four of the last five presidential races, need a champion who can assemble a winning coalition in the party's areas of greatest strength, the South and the Northeast. (Analysis of Tuesday's election results will appear in tomorrow's issue.)

Early polls put Republican Bush and Democrat Hart so far out front that their races for nomination look easy. But don't believe it. Each man has a difficult obstacle course to run before this contest is over. And each has handicaps that will help his opponents.

The latest polls do confirm, however, that their challengers also have a hard road. The newest Gallup poll, pitting Mr. Bush against his strongest Republican competitor, Senate majority leader Robert Dole of Kansas, shows:

George Bush .... 54 percent.

Robert Dole .... 24 percent.

Undecided .... 22 percent.

Likewise, Senator Hart looks as if he is winning in a romp. Against his strongest Democratic competitor, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, Gallup reports:

Gary Hart .... 54 percent.

Mario Cuomo .... 29 percent.

Undecided .... 17 percent.

Yet analysts say these figures are misleading. Neither Bush nor Hart can rest easy. One survey, released Tuesday, shows why.

The poll, by Bannon Research of Boston, found Hart much weaker in the vital early-primary state of New Hampshire than he is nationwide.

Pitted against a field of six opponents, including Governor Cuomo, Hart gets 47 percent of the vote in New Hampshire. But when another name is added to the field, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, Hart's support plunges to only 33 percent. Governor Dukakis gets 27 percent, and Cuomo, 19 percent.

Brad Bannon, president of Bannon Research, says the study indicates that ``the 1988 Democratic presidential primary in New Hampshire will be very competitive.''

Mel Nasielski of Allan-Kerrigan, Inc., in Philadelphia, which also worked on the survey, says it shows Hart's support is soft, much as Walter Mondale's was in 1984. Hart will probably need a strong organization and lots of money to weather the campaign in 1988. Yet at the moment, Hart is struggling with more than $2 million in debts left over from his 1984 campaign.

If Hart should fade, analysts see two potential scenarios. First, a new leader could emerge, possibly Cuomo, possibly Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware (who seems interested), or someone else. Or, regional candidates could emerge - Dukakis in New England, former Virginia Gov. Charles Robb in the South, Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt in the West. The result: no clear winner, and a brokered convention.

Like Hart, Vice-President Bush is far out front, but his support is ``mushy.'' Says Mr. Nasielski:

``If Bush and Hart get the nominations, this could be the first election in my memory where no one cares who wins. There's not a lot of feeling for either one.''

Yet Bush's problems are different. Political analyst Horace Busby says that while Hart appears to be fading, that's not true of Bush. Up till now, says Mr. Busby, ``Bush's toughest race is between George Bush and George Bush.'' The harder Bush ran, the worse he did, Busby notes. Now Bush has pulled back, is concentrating on his job in the White House, and his strength has solidified somewhat. His vice-presidential role will keep Bush in the limelight (unlike Hart, who retires from the Senate in January).

Bush's first objective will be to avoid mistakes. A serious gaffe could give a challenger, like Senator Dole, an opening. Dole has been slowly climbing in the polls as his reputation as an effective leader in the Senate has grown. A Bush mistake could also benefit former Sen. Howard Baker Jr., another middle-of-the-roader, who has a rich campaign war chest. He is expected to announce his candidacy before the end of the year. Baker will concentrate his campaign effort in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The other threat to Bush is ideological. The Rev. Pat Robertson, who seems likely to run, could hurt Bush with evangelical Christians. Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada could chop away Bush's strength with party regulars. Sen. William L. Armstrong of Colorado could be a threat with conservatives.

Bush's principal problem is the same as that of other vice-presidents and former vice-presidents who have sought the White House. He's seen as an effective lieutenant to the commander in chief. But that position leaves him little room to prove his political mettle. He can't advocate policies that disagree with his boss. At the same time, he can't hog the limelight.

Even so, Bush has won Mr. Reagan's confidence. Although the President's imprimatur won't be officially on Bush (Reagan is expected to adopt a hands-off stance), the Vice-President will be directly linked to the success of the Reagan White House. That could be enough.

Unless one of those can break from the pack, however, Bush could remain out front. That's what many experts expect.

Says political analyst David Chagall in Los Angeles: ``Bush will be the nominee.''

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