Of Bush and Balloons

BALLOONS filled with helium rise; balloons filled with air fall. After ending their Houston convention with the mother of balloon drops (20,000), Republicans hope that the Bush/Quayle campaign will start to soar, not keep drifting lazily downward. That depends on what's inside.

As expected, the Republicans came out of their four-day pep rally filled with renewed energy and hope. President Bush finally entered his "campaign mode" with a fighting acceptance speech Thursday night. And with James Baker III now at the combined helm of the White House and reelection operations, the GOP can confidently anticipate a shrewd, tightly run campaign.

So the Republicans leave Houston in better shape than when they arrived. But Mr. Bush's low approval ratings have stemmed more from issues than from campaign glitches. And it's on issues that the 1992 election will be decided.

The anticipated "bounce" in the polls that Bush received in the first days after the convention showed that the TV extravaganza captured the attention of many Americans (just as the Democratic convention - equally high in production-value sizzle - did last month). But it's too early to judge how favorably voters responded to the sometimes conflicting messages that emanated from the Astrodome.

The GOP speakers developed five main themes that will be the pillars of the party's fall campaign: Bush's experience in foreign affairs and as commander in chief; so-called family values; the economy; "trust" (i.e., character); and the need to overhaul Congress. Of these, the most important is the economy - where Bush is also the most vulnerable. The president must appear sufficiently credible on the economy to stay competitive with Bill Clinton, then hope to pick up enough votes on other grounds to edge

out the Democratic nominee.

On the economy, Bush got off to only a fair start Thursday. While his eclectic list of proposals - a $300 billion tax cut offset by unspecified spending cuts, a lower capital-gains tax, a tax-return checkoff to lower the deficit, a balanced-budget amendment, and a line-item veto - add up to a program of sorts, the president failed to offer an overarching vision of how America would compete in the new global market.

And while Bush generally took the high road in his address, he surely didn't dispel all the misgivings of voters, including some moderate Republicans, put off by the cultural war waged in some of the "family values" speeches.

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