CLAYTON WILLIAMS, surrounded by a platoon of reporters and cameramen, met the challenge squarely: ``President Bush is my friend,'' said Mr. Williams, the GOP candidate for governor in Texas. ``I'm proud to have him in Texas campaigning for me.... I support the president.''
Williams's pledge of allegiance to his party's commander in chief would not ordinarily be news. But for budget-bruised, squabbling Republicans, these aren't ordinary times, and the next day, Williams's embrace of Mr. Bush was Page 1 material in Texas:
``Williams says Bush still has his support,'' declared a headline in the San Antonio Light.
Vice President Dan Quayle, interviewed on TV Wednesday night, admitted the White House had taken political damage during the budget fight.
``There's no doubt about it.... It's been a tough couple of weeks,'' he told an interviewer on PBS. But Quayle says that with Democrats in control of Congress, the president had only two alternatives: either ``govern by chaos,'' by letting automatic budget cuts take place, or ``get a budget'' that included higher taxes. ``It was not an easy choice,'' Mr. Quayle said.
Many Republicans, however, worry that the tax decision, and Bush's apparent tilt toward rich taxpayers, could haunt them for months. Already, Bush's record-high popularity, once over 70 percent, has dipped to 59 percent.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found confidence in his handling of the economy shrank to only 35 percent who approved, while 55 percent disapproved.
As the president flies to several states, including Texas, for last-minute campaigning this weekend for congressional and gubernatorial candidates, some Republicans are keeping their distance, while others are warning of ballot box ``disaster'' on Tuesday.
Fingerpointing already has begun.
Conservative columnist Patrick Buchanan, who worked in both the Reagan and Nixon White Houses, accuses Bush of abandoning the Reagan principles of low taxes and spending cuts for the politics of conciliation with tax-and-spend Democrats. The result, he says, is a ``crisis of the GOP.''
Craig Shirley, a Republican consultant, says the president ``has always been part of the establishment, and therein lies the problem with George Bush.''
Analyst David Chagall in Los Angeles says voters sense that while Reagan had a vision for America, Bush has no vision. People realize that accommodation isn't the same as leadership, he says.
The past few weeks saw several striking examples of Republican fractures that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago.
In New England, during a presidential campaign swing, a Republican congressman lectured Bush in public about taxes.
In eight states, House Republicans running for the US Senate all reportedly opposed Bush's efforts to trade higher taxes for a budget deal.
In Washington, Ed Rollins, the top GOP strategist on House races, created an uproar in the White House when he sent a memo to Republican candidates suggesting they break with the president on the tax issue. Some reports indicated that the president wants Mr. Rollins fired.
Stephen Hess, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, says all this Republican in-fighting should be no surprise, however.
``The party will fracture. It is going to happen. The question is when. It is inevitable,'' Mr. Hess says.
The US now is in the 10th year of the Reagan-Bush administration, Hess notes, saying much of the original agenda is complete. New generation of leaders
``There's no question that the Republican Party will have to recreate itself,'' he says. The problem is, who will be in charge. ``A generation of [new] leaders is coming up.... There is no heir apparent, and no one will turn it all over to Dan Quayle in 1996.''
What we are seeing are the initial skirmishes, ``guerilla warfare around the edges,'' preceding the battle to remake the party after Bush, he says. If Bush is beaten in 1992, the blood-letting will begin immediately. Otherwise, it will start about 1994, he says.
Republican officials admit recent days haven't been easy, especially in the midst of elections.
Leslie Goodman, speaking for the Republican National Committee, puts it this way: ``Have Democrats won the public relations war in the last three weeks? Absolutely. Is it irreparable? Absolutely not.'' But hope springs
RNC official Charles Black insists that so far, no Republican candidate has turned down Bush's offer to help. And he predicts that the GOP will do better on Tuesday than the usual mid-term election results, when the president's party ordinarily loses 25 House seats and four Senate seats.
Despite setbacks, Quayle insists that any Republican candidate would still welcome a visit from the president before the election. Here in Texas, that certainly includes Williams, who says:
``Let me tell you ... when I place a phone call to the president, who will probably still be the president for another 6-1/2 years, he's gonna take my phone call.''
Many other Republicans would agree.