When Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonz'alez M'arquez meets with President Bush tomorrow, he will not only win valuable news coverage back home, 10 days before Spain's general elections, but he will also play one of his favorite roles - that of world statesman.
The prime minister, a nominal socialist who has led his party steadily to the right, will put himself forward as a mediator in the Panamanian political crisis.
Mr. Gonz'alez will not be accompanied by his wife, Carmen Romero. She is busy campaigning to win a congressional seat in the south of Spain in the Oct. 29 elections. Polls show Gonz'alez's party is almost certain to win.
The visit to Washington is likely to focus on the plan the Spanish prime minister has developed for a compromise between Panamanian military strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega and the domestic opposition.
The plan, which has reportedly drawn a somewhat tepid response from the White House, provides for free elections, the results of which would be respected by General Noriega (in contrast to the aborted poll in May).
The civilian president chosen in these elections would name a new Defense Forces chief to replace Noriega, who would be allowed to remain in Panama, without threat of prosecution or extradition.
The plan affords Gonz'alez the chance to cast Spain in the role of intermediary between Latin America and the industrialized world.
And it also puts Gonz'alez in the world limelight after 15 years as the head of the Socialist Worker's Party and seven years as Spain's head of government.
``He is tired of mundane issues like highway construction,'' said Spanish political commentator Jos'e Luis Gutierrez, co-author of a recent biography of Gonz'alez, ``The Ceasar's Ambitions.'' ``He is delighted to have a chance to sit down at the same table with world leaders like [Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev and Bush.''
Gonz'alez provoked surprise - and skepticism - among many observers last weekend when he announced that the elections at the end of this month would probably be his last, and that after serving out a third term in office he would likely hand over leadership of the party to someone else.
Doubts about an early retirement for Gonz'alez stem from the timing of the announcement - in the middle of an election campaign - and from the determination the prime minister has shown in his quest for power throughout his adult life.
Jos'e Mar'ia Aznar, the conservative candidate for prime minister, said that the announcement was ``simply for effect'' and that Gonz'alez was trying to turn the vote into a personal plebiscite.
Former Prime Minister Adolfo Su'arez termed Gonz'alez's remarks ``suspicious.'' Mr. Su'arez, who oversaw Spain's transition to democracy from 1976 to 1981, went on to say that, ``He may well be tired, but I believe it's just an electoral feint.''
Gonz'alez has successfully led his party through a number of twists and turns since he took over its leadership in 1974. At the beginning of the 1980s, for example, he campaigned against the centrist government's plans to affiliate Spain with NATO. But once in office, at the end of 1982, a few months after Spain had joined NATO, he reversed his position.
In 1986, he staked his reputation on a controversial referendum to endorse continued NATO membership, suggesting that if the electorate did not support it, he would resign.
After a campaign in which he argued forcefully for strengthened defense ties with the West, the referendum was approved. Taking advantage of the momentum, Gonz'alez called early elections three months later, which gave the Socialists a second clear parliamentary majority.
Last Dec. 1, Gonz'alez sealed the change of policy by renewing, for eight years, the bilateral treaty that has permitted US military bases in Spain since 1953, although with lower troop levels and fewer bases.
In economic policy, Gonz'alez's about-faces have been just as striking.
Although only a dozen years ago the Socialist party program called for the nationalization of large banks and key industries, Gonz'alez's government has, in fact, privatized a large part of the state-owned industry it inherited.