ON the eve of Super Tuesday, President Bush is like a lion who finds himself being attacked by an angry bee. Though Mr. Bush swats constantly at his pesky foe, it won't go away.
Patrick Buchanan stung the president again over the weekend, garnering 26 percent of the vote in the South Carolina presidential primary.
Though he has lost every primary and caucus so far, Mr. Buchanan has thrown Bush on the defensive, at one point even calling on the president to quit the race.
Experts say the Bush White House needs to act at once to halt erosion in the president's strength, even among stalwart Republicans.
They warn that Bush has failed on three fronts: First, the president has failed to adequately address the economic crisis. Second, his campaign strategy is badly flawed. Third, he underestimated Mr. Buchanan's threat.
Political scientist Tom Cronin at Colorado College says Bush is in trouble because "he's giving us no reason to believe that his second term would amount to anything: Republicans who voted for him four years ago are just scratching their heads. He has no message. It's the vision thing all over again."
William Galston, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, says Bush needs a stronger plan for economic recovery.
He explains: "Bush is vulnerable because he has no message of change. So he becomes the defender of the status quo" at a time when 4 out of 5 Americans think the country is going in the wrong direction.
Former Democratic Party chairman John White of Texas is even more blunt: "He's just flailing around out there," Mr. White says. "At this point, his campaign has been about as inept as anybody's I've ever seen."
Ed Rollins, who served as President Reagan's political adviser, says the coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats that put the GOP in power during the 1980s is fragmenting because of the recession.
Mr. Rollins told one interviewer that Mr. Buchanan poses a real threat to the party's prospects: "Pat Buchanan is not going to play by anybody's rules.... I think, in his heart and soul, he doesn't care if George Bush loses in 1992, and that's the great danger."
Although Buchanan makes much of Bush's lapses in conservatism, analysts say that isn't the president's real problem - that the current recession is the problem and people are peeved at the president's failure to act more forcefully.
Bush's lack of fresh ideas, his failure to show that he really understands what people are going through, is hurting him with liberals and moderates as much as conservatives within his own party.
In exit polls Buchanan, who is an outspoken conservative, gets nearly the same ratio of votes from liberal and moderate Republicans as he does from his own wing of the party.
In New Hampshire, for example, Buchanan got 43 percent of the conservative votes, 38 percent of the moderate votes, and 39 percent of the liberal votes in a two-way matchup with Bush.
White says: "I think most of the unhappiness on the Bush side is connected directly with the economy.... I don't think it's [ideology]."
Democratic pollster Peter Hart noted in an interview on the Public Broadcasting Service: "People are despairing. They want help. If they could say one thing to the candidates, it would be, 'Listen to us, level with us.
Mr. Hart says Buchanan is tapping into this public anger. Unlike Bush, he is cognizant of "the message of change that all the Democrats are talking about."
Hart suggests that the White House is trying to be responsive to voters. The president keeps indicating he's gotten the message from voters, he says, but the problem is that the president "has a tin ear. He just doesn't hear what the public is saying. They want somebody who is going to level with them. They want somebody that's going to give them direction. He gives them neither."
Hart praises a suggestion by Rollins that Bush should immediately "go up to Camp David, take a weekend, figure out why he wants a second term, articulate that on a piece of paper, and go out and tell the American public: 'This is what I'm going to do.
At the moment, Hart says, "there's no sense of vision. There's no sense of core beliefs."
Pollster Del Ali of Mason-Dixon Opinion Research says the political floundering in the White House reminds him of 1980, when President Jimmy Carter was under attack by Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.
Mr. Carter fended off Senator Kennedy, but his weakened presidency later went down to defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan.
Mr. Ali says Bush will be seriously mistaken if he tries to stop Buchanan, who really has very little personal support, by moving sharply to his right.
The president has already edged that way - firing, for example, John Frohnmayer, head of the National Endowment for the Arts, which is accused of funding pornographic films and sculpture.
Waging an ideological war with Buchanan will do nothing to end the recession, the major cause of Bush's political problems, says Ali. Instead, it would alienate a key Republican voting group, the 30-to-45-year-olds, who are "traditionally economic conservatives, but socially liberal."