WHEN the 120th speaker, George Bush, steps before the Republican National Convention tonight to accept his party's presidential nomination, it will climax an intense, four-day effort to put new pep into the step of the Grand Old Party.
Effusive praise for President Bush has been poured across America by TV, radio, and newspapers from the spacious Astrodome in Houston. Ronald Reagan, Patrick Buchanan, Jack Kemp, Phil Gramm, and dozens of other Republican notables here gave the president credit for ending the cold war, expanding free trade, spreading private enterprise around the globe, and curbing the market in illegal drugs.
Yet throughout this jubilant red, white, and blue hall, where thousands applaud every good word about the Republicans, delegates from California to Florida know that with just 75 days left to campaign, time is growing short.
Ed Rollins, a Republican strategist who helped put President Reagan back into office in 1984, remains hopeful that Bush can overcome Gov. Bill Clinton's huge lead (20 points in the newest ABC News poll). But he warns:
"If the American public has made up its mind it wants someone other than George Bush, there's nothing that ... is going to turn [it] back around. If they [voters] have not quite reached that point yet ... then we may get back in the race."
On the convention floor, there are several things that delegates and party officials say must be done quickly to avoid what some of them worry could be an overwhelming defeat.
One of their foremost priorities is to slow the fast-running Mr. Clinton. Charles Black, a top strategist for President Bush, says the public must be convinced that Clinton is a "tax and spend" liberal from the same economic school as Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts.
Another urgent goal: They must contrast Bush's vast experience as president, vice president, ambassador to China and the United Nations, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and congressman with the limited experience of the Arkansas governor.
Mr. Buchanan, a conservative who got 3 million votes in the primaries by criticizing Bush's 1990 decision to raise taxes, got one of the biggest cheers of the week when he told delegates: "Bill Clinton's foreign-policy experience is pretty much limited to having breakfast once at the International House of Pancakes."
The toughest part of the Republicans' political task, however, will be explaining their party's goals for America's future, and convincing voters that they can not only get the job done, but that they really care about average Americans.
When Ronald Reagan spoke here this week of his hope for America's future, and his confidence in the abilities of the people, he touched the same chords that made him one of the most popular presidents of this century.
BUSH has failed to strike those same empathetic notes, and has suffered politically.
As Rollins told reporters at a luncheon: Reagan talked the talk working-class Americans understood. "The perception today, whether it's right or wrong,... is that the Republican Party is moving back to being a wealthier, country-club party, and it's not a party" that working-class people "can feel comfortable in."
Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, a close friend of Bush, concedes the administration may not be connecting with everyday Americans. Talk of macroeconomic policy sometimes seems too remote from Americans' everyday problems.
Mr. Brady told the Monitor in an interview that the next two years, 1993 and 1994, under Bush will produce powerful economic growth. As for this campaign, he says of the voters:
"I think they [the people] want to know, very simply: The cold war is over. We won. What is the plan after the cold war?"
Brady concedes that the changes going on in the US economy today are putting stress on millions of workers. He compares the current time to the era when agriculture was declining as a major source of jobs. Now it is big business which is consolidating, while new jobs are coming from smaller entrepreneurs.
Eventually, this restructuring will result in tremendous economic gains, which Brady insists are just around the corner - unless they are killed by Clinton's proposed $150 billion in tax increases.
Housing Secretary Kemp predicts that the coming Bush-Clinton election will be historic. It will set the nation's economic and political direction for a generation, he says, either toward more free enterprise and growth, or greater government bureaucracy and economic stagnation. Senator Gramm of Texas, the keynote speaker, noted that "freedom has swept the planet." This is no time to expand government, a policy rejected everywhere today except Cuba and North Korea, he said.
Republican delegates cheered.