AFTER his ringing speech to the Republican National Convention, Patrick Buchanan got an urgent request. Aides to George Bush wanted to know: Could Mr. Buchanan go quickly to Ohio this weekend in support of the president's reelection effort?
Mr. Buchanan said he would try, even though it would mean breaking a television engagement. Buchanan, a conservative Roman Catholic, knows the trip is important. The president desperately needs political help in the Midwest with traditional, working-class Catholics, and Buchanan just might be the man to help.
As Republicans begin leaving this convention city today, political strategists in both major parties are busily mapping out the most likely battlegrounds that could be decisive in the coming fall campaign between Mr. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton.
Perhaps no region will be more pivotal, however, than the industrial Midwest, especially a cluster of states reaching from Ohio through Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Missouri.
Buchanan's trip would be just a small part of a huge effort by both sides to seize the initiative in these battleground areas before Labor Day.
The president hits the campaign trail today for Missouri, Illinois, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.
His aides say California also will be high on his agenda in coming days. This frenetic political pace in the heat of summer is unusual - but there is good reason for it. Compared with recent presidential elections, campaign '92 promises to be a free-for-all unlike anything seen in years.
Republicans, who ordinarily can could count on most of the South's electoral votes, are now challenged by an all-Southern Democratic ticket. Out West, California, which was easy pickings for the GOP in the 1980s, is suddenly in play. The Midwest, roiled by two years of recession, is up for grabs.
Charles Black, a top campaign aide to Bush, admits that Governor Clinton is unusually well-positioned on the eve of the fall race. "Obviously ... they're ahead most anywhere right now," he says.
Democratic strength will force Bush to spread his manpower, money, and attention much thinner than in 1988. He can take almost nothing for granted except, perhaps, a few states like South Carolina, Virginia, and Utah. Even Florida, usually pro-Republican in presidential races, is currently in contention.
Top Republicans indicate that Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle will use a building-block approach to assemble the 270 electoral votes they need for reelection.
GOP chairman Richard Bond says an early priority will be solidifying Bush's base - the Rocky Mountain and Great Plains states, the Deep South, Texas, Florida, New Jersey, and other targets that almost always vote Republican. The biggest question mark is California.
"California is tough," admits Mr. Black. "We are badly behind" in California, concedes Mr. Bond.
California is a double-barreled risk for Bush. Conceding it would give Clinton one-fifth of the votes he needs to win the White House. But fighting hard for California, where the going will be uphill, could squander precious time and money.
Samuel Popkin, a political scientist from the University of California at San Diego, is keeping a watchful eye on the Golden State for the Clinton campaign, where he is working as a strategist.
Dr. Popkin says Bush's concern about California is well-founded, for the president has two strikes against him there:
* The economy. With unemployment hovering around 9 percent, California is suffering one of its worst recessions in memory. And it could sink even lower because of the state's heavy reliance on defense spending, which is being cut.
* Social issues. "California is a state very much on the side of choice" on abortion, Popkin says. "George Bush has consistently needed to play a traditional morality card to shore up his support on the conservative right, and so everything he has done to strengthen his support from fundamentalists has caused him trouble in California."
Popkin explains: "Bush is terrible on the modern family, abortion, and the environment. California is moderately environ- mental, believes in choice, and is the land of divorce and single families. Bush has nothing going for him."
Bush aides see it differently, however. Because Clinton and his running mate, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee, champion the environment, the Bush team thinks it sees an opening on the entire West Coast.
Black says: "The environmental extremism of the Clinton ticket is [a] big issue in California.... I think you'll see the president in September go to [California, Oregon, and Washington] and talk about the `spotted owl vs. jobs' issue. I think it will put Washington and Oregon back into play, and have a big impact in California."
He sees a similar scenario unfolding in the Midwest, where the election could be decided.