Bush Opens the '92 Race As Unexpected Underdog

YOU'RE behind. Your standing in the polls continues to drop. Your opponent is smart, quick, and tough.

Your chances look so bleak that some of your "friends" think you should just quit and enjoy retirement at Kennebunkport.

George Bush, poised to win renomination at this week's Republican National Convention, begins his reelection drive as an unlikely underdog, a once-popular president who a year ago was riding the biggest crest of voter-approval in modern history.

Now faced with a gloomy drumbeat of criticism, even within his own party, and an army of 10 million unhappy, unemployed Americans, Mr. Bush has vowed to fight back with the help of his old friend, Secretary of State James Baker III.

The question is, Can he win? And how? Experts agree on one thing: With Mr. Baker's help as his campaign guru, Bush still has a reasonable chance to defeat Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, the Democratic nominee, and extend Republican control of the White House another four years.

But one longtime Republican insider says: "Bush must be bold and dynamic. He has to take chances. He should consider jettisoning [budget director] Richard Darman. He has to do something dramatic about jobs and the economy."

Appointing Baker as his chief of staff was a first step. Baker will try to pull together a strong domestic- and foreign-policy agenda for Bush's second term; but even many fellow Republicans think much more is needed.

Time and again, experts call for Bush to demonstrate strength and leadership by proving he is in charge.

Atlanta pollster Claibourne Darden Jr. suggests that Bush take steps that would stun the public.

For example, says Mr. Darden: Dump Dan Quayle from the ticket and "get a real vice president"; talk bluntly to the American people about their economic problems; attack Governor Clinton, especially on taxes and character; go after insurance companies, and "slick-mouthed lawyers," and doctors who take "half a billion in profits from the citizens of this country."

There are risks in such a bold campaign, which could make doctors and lawyers and other traditional Republicans uncomfortable.

But the president may have no choice. Otherwise, experts say, there is a growing probability that he will lose. Clinton lead continues

A month after Clinton clinched the nomination at his party's New York City convention, Bush still trails by about 25 points in national polls.

David Hill, a Republican consultant in Texas, says the Bush-Quayle ticket is like a college football team that is down 28-0 at halftime.

"In the second half, Bush needs to score 35 points, but he also must keep the other side from scoring. And the other side is enormously talented," Mr. Hill says.

There is surprise and dismay at the Bush campaign so far. As the faithful gather here in Houston, Republicans seem ill-prepared to confront the Democrats, especially someone as battle-hardened as Clinton.

John Chubb, a political analyst now on leave from the Brookings Institution, says of the White House: "They knew there was an election coming. I don't get it. They knew the economy was weak, yet they seemingly did nothing to get ready for this. There is no excuse for the bumbling."

John Deardourff, a veteran Republican media consultant, says: "In order to have a chance, Bush has got to have a credible domestic policy.

That has to include a clearer path to sustained growth of the economy.

"In fact, says Mr. Deardourff, the economy is the issue." Up to now, it sometimes looks as if "maybe the Bush White House has run out of ideas about how to move this economy forward." Rebuilding drive urged

Analysts emphasize that Bush's job of rebuilding his political coalition must begin in a powerful way this week at the Republican convention.

The president must show the American people that he not only understands their concerns, their fears, their dreams, but that he will respond to them.

Darden says that the president should begin by acknowledging that the American people have had a rough time during the past few years - that he should point out, in fact, that the whole world is in recession, that the US is not an island.

But the White House has the programs to pull out of it.

The president also must do a little explaining about what is going on in the world, analysts say.

Economies everywhere are readjusting.

Many job opportunities are closing down, while others requiring more education, more investment, more technical skills are opening up.

"Unless we want to be left behind, like the Soviet Union, as a third-rate nation, we need to shift when the economy shifts" - that is what Bush should explain, Darden says.

Is there time for Bush to save his presidency? Hill worries when he looks at the calendar.

Time is running out. Bush's message must be very potent, he says.

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