Week went awry for Bush, but he's got time to recover


WASHINGTON -- Like the Orioles, presidential candidates go through hot streaks and slumps. Unlike the Orioles, President Bush has just been through a bummer of a week.

But it is probably prudent to remember that for the president, as for the Orioles, it is still early in the season, long before most voters begin to pay close attention to the campaign. If this were October, there would be reason for runaway panic at Bush-Quayle headquarters, but it is still almost five months until the election Nov. 3.

The political context of the president's week was established by three different national opinion polls showing him running a definite second to independent candidate Ross Perot and leading Gov. Bill Clinton, the probable Democratic nominee, by statistically insignificant margins.

The White House clearly hoped to regain a little momentum by playing one of his foreign policy high cards in Panama. Instead, his appearance as the liberator became an embarrassment as he was obliged to flee the tear gas to the safety of a hangar on a U.S. military base and an audience of U.S. servicemen and their families. The inevitable if inexact comparison is with President Lyndon B. Johnson making appearances at military bases in 1968 when they became the only places he could be assured of a politically encouraging response.

Then, as Bush flew off to encounter more anti-American demonstrations in Rio de Janeiro, he received the word that his legislative favorite of the moment, the proposed amendment to the Constitution to require a balanced federal budget, had fallen short in the House of Representatives despite the president's own highly visible campaign to promote it.

Taken individually, none of these things has the shelf life to be a factor in the general election campaign. Voters are not going to reject President Bush because he couldn't get the balanced budget amendment through Congress. Although the amendment is popular, it doesn't show up on lists of priority concerns of the electorate.

But there is, nonetheless, reason for the Bush campaign to be concerned. The perception of a president suffering one rebuff after another is not one his managers want to see harden. Anyone whose memory stretches back only 12 years can recall how President Jimmy Carter became perceived as snake-bit in 1979 and 1980 -- a victim of hostile forces as diverse as some putative malaise in the electorate, a killer rabbit and the hostage-takers in Iran. Carter never shook that image; and when the hostage crisis persisted through the 1980 campaign, it became a crystallizing agent in defining him as too ineffectual to deserve a second term.

It is also true, however, that opinion polls taken at this stage of a campaign should be heavily discounted. The poll-takers themselves recognize that they are asking voters to make choices they are not prepared to make and don't need to make for almost five months. Indeed, the volatility of opinion polls has never been more clearly defined than in the remarkable plunge Bush's own approval ratings have taken over the last four months.

Nor does candidate Bush function in a vacuum. Although Perot continues to dominate the political scene, there are at least a few signs of the inexperience in a presidential campaign that can be a problem even for a Texas billionaire.

His notion of inviting affluent Americans to voluntarily surrender their Social Security benefits may have seemed charmingly naive when advanced on the "Today" show this week. But it is also the stuff of which campaign commercials are made to frighten the socks off retired voters in Florida (25 electoral votes). And it is precisely the kind of thing that the inside-the-Beltway skeptics have been saying could take some of the gloss off the Perot candidacy.

Nor has Democrat Clinton found that rushing from one television studio to another is a formula for gaining instant momentum in the campaign. On the contrary, the Arkansas governor seems to be functioning outside the main arena, still mired in the problems that have plagued him all year.

But Bush cannot rely on Perot's self-immolation or on the vulnerabilities of Clinton. His negatives are now at what is ordinarily considered a dangerous level for any incumbent, and a few more weeks like this inevitably will harden the perception of a campaign in meltdown. There is still ample time, but it is not unlimited.

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