PRESIDENT Bush, his suitcases barely unpacked after his grueling Far Eastern trip, heads onto the campaign trail tomorrow to confront a group that could be even tougher than the Japanese - the voters of New Hampshire.
This is a bitter winter of discontent in the Granite State, and poor economic conditions there are sending a shiver through the Bush White House. The state is being hammered by high joblessness, failed banks, and hundreds of home foreclosures after 36 months of the Bush presidency.
Mr. Bush's political problems are both immediate and long term. In New Hampshire, he is being harshly criticized by an outspoken Republican conservative rival, Patrick Buchanan.
Beyond that primary, now just five weeks away, his political standing among voters is threatened nationally by the depressed economy and by a potentially explosive Supreme Court decision on abortion.
Bush's first challenge, however, will be to weather the New Hampshire election. Mr. Buchanan, a TV commentator and newspaper columnist, is trying to help angry voters send Washington a message about jobs. His early successes worry Bush allies.
Robert Mosbacher, who is stepping down this week as United States secretary of Commerce to run the Bush reelection campaign, says Buchanan is gaining support only because New Hampshire's economy is "one of the poorest" in the country.
Mr. Mosbacher insists that, if Bush can get just 50.1 percent of the votes there, Buchanan will be knocked out of the race.
Other ranking Republicans admit the circumstances in New Hampshire are difficult for the president.
Gov. Judd Gregg (R) of New Hampshire, a Bush ally, says: "I seriously doubt you could draft a scenario which would be so bad for the president. The economy has been so bad for so long."
Vice President Dan Quayle, who tried to blaze a trail for Bush in New Hampshire last week, got a warm reception, but reported bluntly: "I know the people of New Hampshire are frustrated."
The primary, however, is only one slippery path that Bush must walk. In fact, it is hard to imagine that exactly one year after he enjoyed record popularity as the result of winning the war against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Bush would be so hard-pressed by political events.
In the long term, the economy clearly is the president's most serious problem. He returned from Japan last week on the day the government reported unemployment up to 7.1 percent, the highest since 1986. Poll shows discontent
A new survey by Opinion Research Corporation of Princeton, N.J., taken Jan. 2-5 finds that 64.3 percent of the American people feel the economy is in poor condition. Even more Americans, 67.7 percent, say "no" when asked if Bush is doing a good job running the nation's economy.
Bush will unveil an antirecessionary package in his Jan. 28 State of the Union message.
But even that strategy has its critics: They ask why Bush doesn't act even sooner if he has a good plan.
Some hopeful economic signs are visible, however. The stock market has rallied 400 points in recent weeks, an apparent indication that Wall Street expects business profits to begin rising in the next six months.
Also, the Federal Reserve Board has pushed interest rates to their lowest levels in years, a factor that should eventually expand the job market and boost home buying.
But these are merely leading indicators, and Bush needs help immediately, especially after his trip to Asia failed to bring back the "jobs, jobs, jobs" that he spoke of. Buchanan blasted the trip as a "fiasco."
Besides the economy, Bush must deal with these challenges:
* The Quayle factor. The president's brief illness in Japan raised immediate questions about the capabilities of his vice president. The Opinion Research Corporation poll indicated that 48 percent of Americans believe Mr. Quayle should not be Bush's running mate in 1992, while only 38.9 percent say he should.
Ordinarily, the vice-presidential candidate has little impact, perhaps 2 percent, on a presidential race. But if Bush's popularity continues to decline and Democrats seem close to an upset, some analysts insist that he will have to consider replacing Quayle with a seasoned pro, like Secretary of State James Baker III.
* The Buchanan candidacy. Mr. Buchanan, a pull-no-punches critic of Bush, gets support from only 9 percent of Republicans in the nationwide poll by Opinion Research Corporation. Bush gets 80 percent, while former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke gets 3 percent. Embarrassment possible
But New Hampshire, a conservative state, seems ready-made for Buchanan to embarrass Bush. His support there will undoubtedly be well above national levels. If he gets more than 30 or 40 percent of the vote, Buchanan might try to claim a victory, as Sen. Eugene McCarthy did in his losing race against President Lyndon Johnson in 1968.
* The abortion issue. The Supreme Court, now in conservative hands, may issue a ruling this summer that could overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that affirmed women's constitutional rights to abortion.
If that decision comes down, it could galvanize pro-choice voters and spark protests that could haunt the Bush campaign throughout the 1992 general election. The court was expected to indicate Monday whether it will hear the case - Casey v. Planned Parenthood - perhaps as early as this spring.
Because the court term ends in July, the decision could come down on the eve of the Republican National Convention.
Hoping to get the campaign effort off to a strong start, Bush reportedly plans to trudge into icy New Hampshire as many as three times in the next five weeks.