ONE morning not long ago America awoke, rubbed its eyes, looked into the mirror, and got a shock. What it saw with some disbelief was a superpower that was developing serious problems akin to those of the third world.
The nation was losing millions of its best-paying jobs and trading them for low-wage occupations. It was plunging into the deepest debt of any country on Earth. Its middle class was shrinking, its streets were crumbling and crime-ridden, its schools were failing, and more and more of its children were living in poverty.
Next door was Mexico, where newly built factories, financed by American money, were producing high-quality products ranging from TV sets to Mercury Tracer automobiles. Abroad, archrival Japan was adding high-skill, high-wage jobs so fast that it had serious labor shortages.
In the heady 1980s, Ronald Reagan had promised "morning in America." But in 1992, presidential candidates in both parties crisscrossed the country and solemnly warned that in America's cities and towns, in its homes and factories, it was closer to midnight.
Even President Bush, who once wrapped himself in Mr. Reagan's mantle of good times, conceded as the '92 campaign began that the nation's economy was in a "free fall."
Warnings continue to echo from all sides. "The American dream is slipping away," says David Wilhelm, campaign manager for Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton.
"Our beloved country has come to a critical crossroads," proclaims Republican presidential challenger Patrick Buchanan.
For a while, the afterglow of the Persian Gulf war put off America's day of reckoning. But as the memory of that swift victory has faded, the nation's attention has focused on mounting economic problems at home.
Every time a big General Motors factory closes, or a parts manufacturer moves to Taiwan or Singapore, or another bank fails, the national anxiety level ratchets up another notch.
Even Republicans who strongly defend the White House now raise hurricane warnings.
The Wirthlin Group, which did polling for Ronald Reagan through the 1980s, reports that "national pessimism" is "unabated." In a survey of 1,008 adults last month, Wirthlin found that "76 percent [of Americans] say the nation is seriously off on the wrong track." A scant 18 percent think things are going well.
A stunning 81 percent of Americans say the economy is in bad shape, with 41 percent calling it a recession, and another 40 percent judging it even worse, "an economic depression that will last a long time," according to the newest Times Mirror national survey released April 3.
All this leaves George Bush in the most vulnerable position of any incumbent president since Jimmy Carter in 1980. Donald Kellermann, director of the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press, observes that Bush's current approval rating, which has skidded to 36 percent, exactly equals Mr. Carter's at this time in his losing 1980 race.
The Times Mirror says, "The core of the public's problem with the president is the unchanged belief that he is not doing enough to improve economic conditions." Some 76 percent feel that way, while just 21 percent think Bush is doing all he can.
The question that emerges out of all this public dismay, anger, and disillusionment is: What should be done?
Inevitably, the answer comes in slogans. "Take America back!" says former Gov. Jerry Brown, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination. "America First!" cries Republican Buchanan. Former Sen. Paul Tsongas, who suspended his Democratic presidential campaign, said what America needs is an "economic call to arms" as if it were fighting for its survival.
The country's economic problems seem clear-cut. Too much spending. Too few resources. It is like a family that got a pocketful of new credit cards and went on a buying spree.
H. Ross Perot, a Texas billionaire businessman who may run for president as an independent, puts it this way: "We're deeply in debt. We're spending beyond our means.... We need strong, growing companies to keep America at work, and that has got to be our highest priority."
In practical terms, the candidates have a lot of different ideas about how to do that.
President Bush would cut capital-gains taxes in hopes that well-heeled Americans will pour money into new factories, new machinery, research, and other productive activities.
Bush would also throw open America's borders, including the one with Mexico, to stimulate foreign trade. His stated goal: to increase economic efficiency and output in all nations with a tariff-free flow of goods and services.
As the president said in a speech in Philadelphia earlier this month: "In the next century, economic competition as well as economic opportunity will come from beyond our borders, and that's why we have aggressive, pro-growth trade policies. It demands more-open foreign markets for quality American goods and services to sustain and create American jobs."
Bush has four other key elements in his election-year revival plan:
* First, "we must dramatically change our education system, literally revolutionize it [with] top- to-bottom reform."
* Second, we need health-care reform that gives everyone "a sense of well-being about their physical health."
* Third, we must have civil justice reform that deals with the "18 million lawsuits a year [that] are choking us, costing us billions of dollars, and putting a tremendous drag on our civility and our economy."
* Fourth, we must get government reform that would cut down on regulation and red tape by streamlining Congress. As an example, Bush notes that 107 committees and subcommittees claim some oversight responsibility with the Department of Defense.
Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, the leading Democratic presidential candidate, also supports the trade pact with Mexico, educational reform, and adjustments in the tax code.
But Clinton joins other Democrats who have lost confidence in what they call Bush's "trickle- down" economics - giving tax breaks to the rich in hopes of eventually helping the rest of America. Clinton wants tax cuts, but he would start by chopping levies on middle-class Americans by about $1 a day for every family. It is not much, but he calls it a down payment to start redressing the inequities of the 1980s.The Mexican trade deal now being negotiated by Bush is drawing heavy fire from both Mr. Buchanan
and Mr. Brown, who denounce it as a giveaway of American jobs, especially in the auto industry. If Mr. Perot runs as an independent, he may also put the issue before the public.
The real debate over issues won't be sharpened and defined until the fall. Poltical analysts say that public interest in issues has seldom been higher - with the economy at the very top of the list.