FOR the man who runs the Republican Party, hopes for George Bush's uphill fight for reelection are epitomized by a conversation overheard on an airline flight to Houston.
For 15 minutes two passengers engaged in animated criticism of Mr. Bush for spending too much time abroad and neglecting problems on the home front. The conversation then turned to Democratic challenger Bill Clinton. "He's just so slick he gives used-car salesmen a bad name," they agreed.
After a pause, one passenger popped the question: So who are you going to vote for? "If Bush gives me anything remotely positive at the convention, I'm going to vote for Bush."
"Me, too," came the response.
If Republican strategists are right, the reasoning process condensed into this high-altitude conversation is one a lot of other Americans are going to go through between now and election day. And in the end, the strategists hope, once the novelty and glitz of the Clinton campaign wear off, these voters will decide to stick with Bush.
"I feel there's a lot of that out there" among the American people, says Richard Bond, chairman of the Republican National Committee, who recounted the conversation. Tax reversal hurts prospects
At a Monitor breakfast Mr. Bond said a number of factors were responsible for a lackluster campaign that has left Bush 25 points behind Governor Clinton in many public opinion polls: the cumulative effect of the criticism leveled at Bush by five Democratic presidential aspirants, the campaign of independent Ross Perot, and Bush's reversal of his 1988 convention promise not to raise taxes.
Bush's 1990 tax increase "has not been of benefit to George Bush's reelection prospects up to this point," acknowledges Bond, who served as deputy campaign manager for Bush in 1988 and took over as Republican Party chief last February.
But Bond says changes in the management of Bush's campaign, culminating in Secretary of State James Baker III's appointment as White House chief of staff last Thursday, have given the reelection effort a new lease on life.
"The fact of the matter is that the first team is on the field," says Bond, who adds that Bush's convention speech, like the one he delivered in 1988, will be a "defining moment" in the reelection campaign.
In other comments, Bond tacitly acknowledged that the GOP was sending mixed messages on the controversial issue of abortion. The party's platform, which was approved last week, takes a hard-line anti-abortion position, calling for a constitutional amendment that would prohibit abortions under any circumstance.
But asked last week what he would do if his granddaughter had an abortion, Bush said he would "stand by her. Of course, I'd do that."
Later, first lady Barbara Bush said the abortion issue shouldn't be in the platform at all since it is a personal matter. Mixed message on abortion?
"Bill Clinton has characterized this as a mixed message," Bond says. "My view of this is, what's wrong with a little diversity of opinion?"
A small but vocal pro-choice minority has protested the party's stand on the issue, and a majority of delegates to the convention oppose the wording of the abortion plank, according to a recent poll. Bond concedes the issue is controversial but says a vote in November will come down to the larger issue of the candidates, not individual platform planks. "In the end, what matters is Bill Clinton and George Bush and that's what you'll get to," says Bond.