THE platform that the Republican delegates in New Orleans are to endorse tonight is a good reflection of the challenge facing their nominee. Having run thus far as the ultimate Reagan loyalist, George Bush must now demonstrate that he is indeed his own man. Likewise, the platform is largely the one Ronald Reagan ran on in 1980 and 1984 - but updated with references to issues such as child care, which Mr. Bush wants to stake out as his own.
The platform acknowledges that this presidential election is about change. Bush can't afford to run as the candidate of the status quo when so many voters are worried about the future. But the platform contrasts the ``change and progress'' it predicts for a Bush administration and the ``change and chaos'' it expects to follow a Dukakis victory.
It may not draw a mass readership, but the platform is a statement of party values and positions. With both parties represented this time by less than electrifying personalities, it may prove to be a contest about issues after all.
Much has been made lately (by Democrats, anyway) of the expected return this fall of the ``Reagan Democrats'' to their traditional fold.
But Republican campaign officials say that Reagan Democrats, when queried closely on the issues, rather than just on the two candidates themselves, indicate a likelihood to vote Republican once again.
The Republicans' platform is about six times as long as the Democratic one they assail for vagueness. In fact, some Republican operatives in New Orleans are wearing blank campaign buttons, intended as a jab at the alleged lack of substance in the Democratic platform.
And the Republicans have made particular mention of the Democrats' silence on the tax increase that the GOP just knows they are planning if they recapture the White House.
But the Democrats don't have a corner on vagueness: The Republicans don't explain how to pay for their new programs, either.
Sometimes, of course, what's unsaid is as important as what's said. The platform endorses equal rights for women - but not the Equal Rights Amendment. It decries South Africa's hateful apartheid - but does not call for increased economic sanctions against Pretoria. (A reference to Marxism-Leninism as ``a greater threat to peace and freedom than apartheid'' was proposed but dropped.)
The platform also includes planks intended to stake out high ground - the death penalty for drug traffickers, for instance. The cluster of emotional issues like abortion and gun control might have seemed less critical to platform drafters if candidate Bush were in less danger of having the ``M word'' - moderate - pinned on him by the party's right wing.
Still, like its Democratic counterpart, the Republican platform is intended to fuzz its party's edges a bit. That reflects an awareness that the center is where the election will be won and lost.