ALTHOUGH he has not yet officially declared his candidacy for reelection, there was no mistaking George Bush's intentions last week in New Hampshire, site of the first presidential primary Feb. 18. The president was back on the stump for what is probably his last campaign in a long political career.
Ten months ago, when victory in the Gulf war had catapulted Mr. Bush into the approval-ratings stratosphere, he and his political advisers probably looked ahead to virtually sitting out the 1992 primary season. Bush could stay above the fray until the Republican convention in August, quietly maintaining a "presidential," statesmanlike mien while the Democratic candidates wrestled in the campaign mud.
But that was before the US economy went south faster than Saddam Hussein's routed troops fled Kuwait. There will be no Rose Garden strategy for Bush, like Ronald Reagan's "morning in America" campaign in 1984.
Bush knows that if he wants to be president for four more years, he has to start running now.
For the long run, Bush's goal is to defend his record from Democratic assaults and to present himself as a leader with more solutions to America's economic problems than the Democratic hopefuls offer.
Bush also has a more immediate objective, though: He must stiff-arm Pat Buchanan's challenge from the Republican right. A strong protest vote for the conservative columnist in New Hampshire would intensify the aura of vulnerability that is forming around the president.
Bush seemed on the defensive in distressed New Hampshire. He in effect apologized for not having recognized the depth of the recession sooner, and almost pleaded with his listeners to believe that he cares about their problems. And he was shrill in his condemnation of the many people who have called his recent trip to Japan an embarrassing failure.
Bush still is the favorite in the 1992 sweepstakes. But it's no longer unthinkable that he could be another Herbert Hoover (not that a potential FDR has yet emerged among the Democrats).
To win again - or, at least, to deserve to win again - Bush has to show not only that he "cares" about Americans' problems, but that he has the farsightedness (the vision thing), commitment, and personnel to mount innovative attacks against those problems. Moreover, the victor of Desert Storm must prove he under- stands that in some ways the Gulf war didn't mark the beginning of a new era so much as the end of an old one. George Bush has to demonstrate that he can provide leadership for an era in which A merica's economic health can no longer be taken for granted.