CAMPAIGN '88 Republican party strategists had planned the outing to underline their candidate’s virile tastes. While the Democratic party was se-
lecting Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis as its presidential nominee in Atlanta last month, Vice-President George Bush went on a three-day fishing trip in Wyoming’s Shoshone national forest. There, after pitching a tent 7,000 feet above sea level, Bush cast for brook trout, rode horses and reportedly swapped off-color stories with Treasury Secretary James Baker—who resigned late last week to become chairman of his longtime friend’s faltering campaign.
But when Bush emerged from the wilds, he found himself the butt of national jokes.
Since the Democratic convention, hecklers have assailed Bush with the refrain that Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy—chronicling Republican scandals from which the vice-president has distanced himself—turned into a convention catchphrase: “Where was George?” At the same time,
Bush has made numerous verbal blunders, reinforcing keynote speaker Ann Richards’s remark that he was “born with a silver foot in his mouth.” The persistent lampooning underlined the fundamental problem facing Bush as he heads for the Republicans’ own convention in New Orleans next week—his difficulty in publicly defining himself. Indeed, even some Republicans expressed fears that, unless Bush can firmly establish his identity in his New Orleans speech, his campaign could remain stalled. Last week, he lagged 17 points behind Dukakis in major public-opinion polls. Said Washington-based Republican consultant Kevin Phillips: “Unless medicine can develop a personality transplant, I don’t think he can save himself.”
Those concerns symbolized the role that personality will play in an election that still lacks any galvanizing issues. And last week, as Bush’s aides made clear that they will use the convention to raise doubts about Dukakis’s competence and character, that personality issue took an ugly turn. According to the Baltimore Sun and the Los Angeles Times, Bush’s campaign staff and advisers actively fanned a two-week campaign of rumors— first aired by ultraconservative supporters of Lyndon LaRouche at the Democrat-
ic convention—that the Massachusetts governor had suffered from mental health problems.
Dukakis and his doctor of 17 years categorically denied that he had ever received psychiatric care. But President Ronald Reagan catapulted the rumors into national headlines when—responding to a question from a LaRouche supporter at a White House news conference—he said, “I don’t want to pick on an invalid.” Within 20 minutes, the President expressed regrets for his joke. But, like the Democrats’ ridicule of Bush, it may signal that the fall campaign is becoming increasingly vicious.
Reagan took two other steps to improve his vice-president’s electoral for-
tunes last week. Reversing a previous stand, the President vetoed a congressional bill that limits defence spending in some areas. The bill, produced by the Democratic-dominated Congress, may provide Bush with ammunition for his contention that the Democrats are soft on defence. And Reagan retreated from his earlier threats to veto popular legislation requiring employers to give their workers 60 days’ notice of plant closings. With both turnabouts, Reagan bowed to pressure from Bush campaign organizers.
But Bush’s aides made a concerned effort to ensure that Reagan will not steal attention from the vice-president at the convention. Bush will not even arrive in New Orleans until the second day of the four-day gathering—after the President has made his openingnight speech and left for his California
ranch. As one White House aide put it: “It’s the President’s view that wherever he goes, he tends to be the focal point, so he wants to do it this way.”
Still, even Reagan’s early exit from the convention stage may fail to erase nostalgia for a candidate of his charisma and stature who could hold together the squabbling ideological factions of the party. Bush appears to be unable to sustain the coalition Reagan forged to win the White House in 1980. Said Virginia direct-mail tycoon Richard Viguerie, a conservative whose network is credited with helping Reagan: “The party is not united behind George Bush.”
Bush has alienated many conserva-
tive leaders with his attempts to appeal to former Democrats who voted for Reagan in the last two elections. Some of them expressed shock when the vicepresident threw his support behind advocates of legislation to protect people with AIDS from discrimination.
Bush also outraged evangelical Christians and other opponents of abortion by inviting moderate New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean—an advocate of a woman’s right to choice on abortion— to deliver the convention’s keynote speech. New Hampshire Senator Gordon Humphrey called the move “a colossal blunder” and “an affront to the right-to-life movement.” And Humphrey has threatened to stage a walkout during Kean’s speech unless Bush picks a conservative running mate. Said Howard Phillips, chairman of the Conservative Caucus Inc., a Virginia-
based think-tank: “Bush is making a real mistake. There are millions of Americans who are conservative but who clearly are not getting any signals that their concerns matter.”
Bush campaign workers recently made efforts to appease the party’s right wing. Former candidate Pat Robertson, who has returned to his career as a televangelist on his Christian Broadcasting Network, waited two months for a reply to his offer to take a role in the convention. Finally, the vicepresident’s aides returned his call and offered Robertson a prime-time speaking slot. But many conservatives are still concerned by Bush’s positions. And some conservative leaders are threatening not to mobilize their followers to vote for Bush. Said Viguerie: “We don’t yell and scream. We just go home and we fish and play golf. The religious right is registering zero new voters this year. Nobody’s out there working.” Most analysts agree that Bush’s fate depends to an increasing degree on his choice of a running mate. And in an effort to maintain the convention’s suspense—and its television ratings—he will not announce his vice-presidential selection until the final night of the convention, Aug. 18. Polls indicate that Kansas Senator Robert Dole would help a Bush ticket most, particularly in the drought-crippled farm belt. But Bush aides say that their longtime dislike of each other and damaging television footage of their arguments during
the Republican primaries could risk destroying their current facade of unity.
Recently, eight of 10 leading Republican consultants urged Bush to pick the conservatives’ favorite candidate, New York Representative Jack Kemp, a former Buffalo Bills quarterback who offsets Bush’s reputation as a preppie. A longtime proponent of reaching out to blue-collar voters and blacks, Kemp could broaden the party’s base. And as a former native of California, he could help Bush swing that key state. But campaign insiders report that the vicepresident does not entirely trust Kemp to perform in office the way he himself served Ronald Reagan—with unswerving loyalty.
Another favorite among conservatives, former UN ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, could lure voters from one sector of the electorate who rate Bush a critical 32 points behind Dukakis: women. But Kirkpatrick’s strong point, foreign policy experience, is similar to Bush’s. And, so far, his efforts to shrink the so-called gender gap have failed. Even many Republicans termed his proposal for a $2.6billion child-care package for working mothers last month a case of political opportunism.
It is difficult to determine why Bush has had so much difficulty establishing a relationship with voters. Equally puzzling is why favorable economic news has not led to increased Republican support. Baker, hailed as the only
man who can now save Bush’s campaign, is expected to push that message of peace and prosperity, which Republicans say were made possible by their economic policies. And paving the way to the convention, the Republican national committee last week launched a $4.8-million television campaign reminding voters of the times of inflation and energy shortages before Reagan. In one 30-second commercial, a seven-year-old girl perches happily on her family doorstep while an announcer asks: “Would we ever want to go back to the way things were before she was born and risk anything as precious as her future?”
But the Democrats quickly countered with a commercial that underlined the sense of vulnerability that, polls reveal, even many well-off Americans now feel. That advertisement features toddlers playing in front of an American flag as the voice-over talks of the national debt and how the Republicans have mortgaged their futures. Indeed, as both parties embark on their three-month media battle for the loyalty of the electorate, the very complexity of the issues will inevitably force the spotlight back on Bush’s most compelling challenge in New Orleans: telling the American public not where George was during the past seven years, but who he is.
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