The Road Ahead For George Bush

THE Republican convention got its job done. The president was launched successfully - witness the tightening race. But the polls still show George Bush 3 to 14 points behind Bill Clinton, depending on the survey. So now comes the hard job for the Republicans: making up that difference and winning.

Ronald Reagan's pollster, Richard Wirthlin, described the difficult road ahead for President Bush at a breakfast hosted by the Monitor during the Republican convention. His bleak picture was particularly credible since the findings ran counter to his own political leanings.

Mr. Wirthlin said that for the first time in 12 years the GOP's presidential base was in danger of being seriously eroded. He said he was "99 percent certain" that California would go for Mr. Clinton.

He added that no Republican had won the presidency in 120 years without that state being included in his electoral total.

Wirthlin's polling showed further imminent gains for the Democratic candidate in what has been regarded for some years as GOP territory: the South. There, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and North Carolina are tilting toward Clinton. And in the Sun Belt, New Mexico just might go for Clinton.

Several leading Republicans tried to peddle what might be called their electoral-college-victory theory at the convention. One told me: "Just remember that if this election gets real close and Clinton should win the popular vote by a razor-edge margin, Bush could still win out in the electoral vote. You know, we have the electoral-vote advantage."

Well, according to Wirthlin's polling, Clinton has an emerging base which, should it hold, will give him the electoral-vote advantage - one that would conceivably give him a victory even if he loses in a close election.

Wirthlin doesn't rule out a Bush victory. Indeed, by that night, after the breakfast and after the Quayle and Bush speeches, he was talking about a close race and a possible Bush triumph.

But he was gloomy in his breakfast comments. He was sure of the polling statistics he unveiled. And a day earlier on the convention floor he said that one big difference in this election over that of 1988 is Clinton's unending engagement in the battle, not even pausing for a few days during the Republican convention.

Wirthin's chief concern about Bush's prospects is the deep worry that many Americans have about the economy. He finds that 50 percent of the voters are now very unhappy about how the recession impacts their lives. He said that in the spring the high intensity of concern on this issue had dropped to about 35 percent and was going down. "But now it is going up," he said, adding that no other public concern even came close to that being expressed about the economy.

On the "family values" theme, one Republicans are playing for all it's worth, Wirthlin found very little intense concern and worry. Only 5 percent of the voters appear troubled by this subject, he states. This finding, I might say, surprised me very much.

Robert Teeter, the president's pollster and chairman of the campaign, met with the Monitor's group over lunch, only a few hours later. He did not discount the problems cited by his friend. But Mr. Teeter, as might be expected, says he is convinced that Bush will be able to reclaim the GOP base. He insists that even California (where polls show the recession hitting hard and Clinton ahead by 2 to 1) is not lost. And he predicted that Bush's speech would revitalize the Republicans everywhere and spark a si zable rebound - which it did.

Teeter, like Wirthlin, believes that Bush must win in the Midwest - particularly in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa - to carve out a victory.

Another luncheon guest, Ed Rollins, saw "panic" in the Bush campaign. He said he did not rule out a Bush victory, but he wasn't very hopeful. He said he saw the possibility that this was the beginning of a Democratic hold on the presidency that would extend into the next century.

But don't forget, this long-time political operator is a bit miffed with Bush. The president didn't invite him back as an adviser after he defected over to Ross Perot.

What did Rollins expect?

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