THE theme of the Republican convention that opens Monday in Houston will be "bounce." That's the term pollsters use for the ratings uptick which a party's presidential nominee predictably enjoys after a week of national television exposure. President Bush should get some bounce from the GOP's gala event in the Astrodome next week; the question is, how high?
With Mr. Bush still trailing Democratic nominee Bill Clinton by more than 20 points in polls, the president can use more than just a minor upsurge coming out of the convention: He needs the political equivalent of Air Jordan.
A big bounce for the Republicans not only would raise morale for party workers and Bush's standing among some undecided voters. It also would slow the momentum achieved by the Clinton-Gore ticket since the Democratic convention last month. The Democrats' own bounce would be regarded as a product of media saturation more than an indication of voter preference.
Four years ago, coverage of the Democratic convention bounced Michael Dukakis into a 17-point lead over Bush. But the gap was ephemeral: By the time the Republicans gathered in New Orleans, Mr. Dukakis's lead had shrunk to single digits. It has to be worrisome to GOP strategists this year that Clinton's lead during the period between the party conventions has not succumbed to a kind of natural entropy.
Just as in 1988, Bush, in accepting the nomination, will have to give the speech of his career. Most of all, he will have to convince the American people that he can revitalize the economy.
Bush's audience in his Thursday evening address will not be just the news media and the voting public, however. The targeted audience must also include members of his own party. For while Bush may have the votes of most Republicans and conservatives, it's not clear that he has their hearts. In a tight race, victory is likely to go to the candidate who has infused party workers with the most enthusiasm.
This week's platform fights over taxes and abortion disclose fissures in the Republican Party that Bush must try to patch. Some supply-side conservatives embittered over Bush's 1990 agreement to raise taxes have threatened to abandon Bush altogether.
Bush's dual needs in Houston - to placate his critics within the party and to get a big bounce in the polls - in some ways conflict. This tension was evident in the brief speculation that Bush would dump Dan Quayle as his running mate: The political pluses and minuses canceled each other.
The Houston convention, and the race to follow, will sorely test the skills George Bush has acquired in a lifetime in politics.