As Bush's ratings slump, rivals rise to challenge Stagnant economy stimulates interest


WASHINGTON -- If you want to know how far President Bush has fallen politically, just read their lips.

Conservative columnist Patrick J. Buchanan and New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo are threatening to announce for president. If they say they are running, it will be the clearest sign yet of Mr. Bush's vulnerability.

Mr. Buchanan, a right-wing ideologue and veteran of the administrations of Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan, recently established a campaign office in Northern Virginia. He plans to reveal by the middle of next week whether he'll take on Mr. Bush in the GOP primaries.

Such a challenge was unthinkable earlier this year, in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf war, when Mr. Bush looked unassailable politically.

"It wouldn't have happened," said Tom Rath, a Concord, N.H., lawyer and an influential Republican whose views are often sought out by senior Republicans in Washington.

But a flat economy and Mr. Bush's failure to offer a coherent response are stirring anti-Bush sentiment even within his own party.

In New Hampshire, which has suffered a greater economic decline in recent years than perhaps any other state, Mr. Buchanan could attract as much as 30 percent of the vote in the Feb. 18 Republican primary, according to Mr. Rath and other GOP veterans. During the Vietnam War, Sen. Eugene McCarthy's protest candidacy drew 42 percent against President Lyndon B. Johnson in New Hampshire, prompting LBJ to announce that he would not seek re-election.

For Mr. Bush, "the economy is the enormous danger sign," said former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. "Pete" du Pont IV, who ran unsuccessfully in the 1988 Republican primaries.

The erosion of Mr. Bush's political strength, he noted, "is pretty much measured by the suddenly renewed interest of Mario Cuomo."

Mr. Cuomo, the Democratic Party's leading voice and, in the view of some analysts, its strongest potential candidate, said last month for the first time that he was thinking of entering the presidential contest.

Veteran Cuomo watchers have said that the New Yorker would only become a candidate if he thought he could win. His apparent change of heart came amid fresh signs that the economy was faltering and new polls showing Mr. Bush increasingly vulnerable to defeat.

Mr. Cuomo's very public debate with himself over whether to become a candidate is buying him time to get a fix on his odds of unseating the incumbent president. It is also putting the other Democratic candidates in his shadow.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Cuomo said in an interview late last week that he does not need to reach a decision anytime soon.

"I'm not dithering. I've decided not to decide," he told the Wall Street Journal. "I'm still going over it."

Mr. Bush, despite being weakened politically, is still favored to win re-election, especially if the economy picks up by next spring. But his near-panic at the first signs of political trouble have raised hopes among Democrats that they might actually win back the presidency in 1992.

Political strategists in both parties say Mr. Bush's problem isn't simply the economy. It is also the fact that he doesn't seem to have a clue about what needs to be done to fix it and appears unaware of the pain many Americans are suffering.

"The White House is not in control of things," said James Carville, the Democratic consultant who masterminded Sen. Harris Wofford's election in Pennsylvania this month. "If you have no message, you're going to just wander around."

Mr. Rath, the Republican strategist, believes that many Americans do not blame Mr. Bush for their economic woes. But they are increasingly angry that he does not seem aware of just "how bad the situation is."

The White House is planning a public relations tour of the nation next month to let Mr. Bush demonstrate his empathy for the sufferings of middle-class Americans. But to critics in his own party, like Mr. Buchanan, that won't be enough.

Disaffected Republicans want Mr. Bush to embrace a middle-class tax cut, in addition to his plan for a capital gains cut for wealthy taxpayers. And they'd like him to renounce the budget deal of last year, which called for higher taxes in violation of Mr. Bush's 1988 campaign pledge.

Mr. Buchanan is likely to stress those themes if he runs. He told a gathering of conservatives at his Virginia home Thursday night, according to one of those present, that "the state of affairs domestically is heading in the wrong direction. . . . The party that Ronald Reagan built is being unraveled right now."

During last fall's U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf, which Mr. Buchanan opposed, the syndicated columnist and TV talk show host did little to discourage the notion that he was gearing up for a run against Mr. Bush.

After he addressed the New Hampshire Republican State Committee on Jan. 15, the Manchester Union Leader, the state's largest newspaper, editorialized that Mr. Buchanan "is a viable candidate" for president. But Mr. Buchanan's appearance also coincided with the start of the air war against Iraq, which quickly sent Mr. Bush's poll ratings spiraling to record heights.

Nothing further was heard about his candidacy until this month, not long after the president's poll numbers had fallen below prewar levels.

In addition to Mr. Buchanan, defeated Louisiana gubernatorial candidate David E. Duke has hinted that he might oppose Mr. Bush in the Southern primaries next year.

While a challenge from the conservative wing of the Republican Party stands no realistic chance of denying Mr. Bush renomination, it could damage him politically. If he gives in to pressures to move to the right, in order to assuage dissidents within his party, it could make it harder for him to reach out to moderate independents and Democrats in the fall election.

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