THE polls, the pundits, and the Washington insiders all agree: George Bush's political troubles are growing rapidly.
Even in the Deep South, the bedrock of Mr. Bush's support, the White House is bracing for potentially embarrassing primaries against the president's election-year nemesis, Patrick Buchanan.
The next test comes on Tuesday when Republicans hold primaries in Georgia, Maryland, and Colorado. But all eyes will be on Georgia, where Mr. Buchanan is pouring in money and manpower.
Del Ali, a pollster with Mason-Dixon Opinion Research, predicts after sampling Republican voters in Georgia that Buchanan is poised to get an impressive 35 percent at the polls.
Claibourne Darden Jr., an Atlanta pollster, warns that if Buchanan's insurgent conservative campaign reaches the mid-30s in Georgia, Bush could be in severe danger across the South a week later on Super Tuesday.
Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, says the coming vote in Georgia is "very dicey for Bush." Dr. Black says Bush's core supporters - white independent voters and hard-core Republicans - are beginning to abandon the president.
What is happening? Mr. Darden says the pro-Buchanan vote is mostly a protest against Bush. But the protest movement coalescing around Buchanan now appears to be in danger of spinning out of control.
If Bush is humiliated in Georgia and takes further hits on Super Tuesday, the protest vote could turn into an "anybody but Bush" movement among Republicans, Darden says. That would severely damage the GOP next fall. (Tsongas' economic plan, Page 2.)
Republican strategist John Sears says Bush's popularity, and perhaps his electability, is being driven downward by a pervasive mood of pessimism in the United States, especially about the economy. Layoffs at General Motors Corporation and other big companies, the transfer of jobs to Mexico, the closing of big banks, and rising unemployment all are creating a bleak atmosphere.
Mr. Sears says the current national pessimism, both qualitatively and quantitatively, is "unlike anything in my lifetime." It probably isn't as bad as the Great Depression of the 1930s, he says, but it is very serious.
At a breakfast meeting with reporters, Sears suggested that Bush has already lost his best opportunities to recover politically.
This recession "isn't something you can cheerlead people out of," he says. Action is needed. Bush should use the immense power of the presidency to lead the nation out of recession, and so far he is failing to do that, Sears says.
If Buchanan does well next Tuesday, it will undercut one assumption about the earlier New Hampshire results. Because the Granite State's unemployment was 7.8 percent, one of the nation's highest, some observers suggested that Buchanan's 37 percent vote there was an isolated incident. In Georgia, the jobless rate is only 3.9 percent. A strong showing there would show that Bush's problems were far deeper than expected.
Darden explains: "The economy here isn't like New Hampshire, but we are in a recession. Tax collections are down. People aren't making money like they once did. So things are gloomier.... But it's also a question of leadership. Bush has not done anything right for the last six months, and a large majority thinks we're on the wrong track."
Sears makes a similar point: Voters see this as a "referendum on the president," and many don't think Bush is doing very well. Mason-Dixon's polls indicate that Buchanan's campaign may presage even deeper problems for Bush in the fall. A survey released this week shows Bush leading Buchanan in Maryland, 70 percent to 19 percent. But when Bush is matched against Democrat Paul Tsongas, the split is Tsongas, 45 percent, Bush, 40.
Even in the South, Bush looks weak. Against Gov. Bill Clinton, for example, Bush leads 45 percent to 39 percent in Georgia. But Mr. Ali cautions: "As a rule of thumb, support that low, below 50 percent, is a disaster for an incumbent president."
Black says Bush is losing support among the very Southerners who put him and Ronald Reagan into office. These voters support conservatism, religion, and the military. They are virtually all white. And Buchanan is winning many of them over.