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Bush's chief strategist calm inside the storm ON POLITICS


WASHINGTON -- It's said that it's calmest in the eye of a storm. Robert Teeter, chairman and chief strategist of the beleaguered Bush-Quayle campaign, seems to prove the adage as he sloughs off the dark clouds of pessimism that have enveloped many of those around him and leading Republicans on Capitol Hill.

The other day, Teeter sat in his small and tidy office at Bush-Quayle headquarters and talked serenely about how the re-election campaign was methodically putting the Humpty Dumpty at the White House back on the wall.

Teeter, for years the GOP's premier pollster now running his first presidential campaign, is a man who knows numbers and what they mean. He has polled and strategized for hundreds of Republican candidates around the country and the experience has given him a coat of armor against campaign panic when the numbers are sour.

Sour is a kind word to describe what most of the national and many state polls are saying about President Bush. They have him running as much as 2-to-1 behind Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton. Teeter says his own polling indicates that the president is not nearly that bad off. His own figures, he says, are very close to a recent Gallup organization poll for Newsweek, which had Clinton ahead by "only" 55 percent to 37 percent.

That spread is in the range of the 17 points by which Bush trailed Democrat Michael Dukakis at this time four years ago in a campaign in which Teeter played a major role. But Teeter has an even more memorable experience to shore up his confidence that a strong comeback is possible: the 1976 Gerald Ford campaign. The unelected president trailed Democrat Jimmy Carter by 33 points and made up all but 2 by Election Day. Teeter recalls that Ford, having been in the White House only two years, "didn't have a big cadre" of party support. And after a divisive nomination fight with Ronald Reagan, he had to act quickly to expand that base, also diminished by Watergate.

This time around, Teeter says, Bush has the advantage of a huge GOP base built over 12 years. And, while there has been erosion as a result of the Ross Perot phenomenon and the stagnant economy, Teeter says, there is time to restore the base and, he insists, it is happening.

Teeter puts the Republican base in the country today at 39 or 40 percent of the electorate. He differs with polls that indicate a majority of Perot supporters are switching to Clinton. Much of the Perot backing was an anti-government vote but essentially Republican, he says. "I don't know anybody who says Perot out is not better for us," he says, and when such voters come to see Clinton as he is, most will return to Bush.

In that regard, Teeter makes clear that the Bush-Quayle campaign intends to help the voters see the Arkansas governor as "a pretty standard Democrat" little different from Dukakis or 1984 nominee Walter Mondale. Indeed, although Bush keeps saying he's not going to the campaign mode until after this month's Republican National Convention, the effort to define Clinton as just another tax-and-spend liberal is already under way.

Teeter says Clinton's economic plan "and big tax increases" (by GOP calculations) will be prime targets. So will Clinton's early conflicting views on use of force in the Persian Gulf, as well as his draft record. That record as an issue, Teeter says, "is absolutely legitimate. If Quayle's record was legitimate four years ago, his certainly is." In fact, he says, Clinton probably picked Sen. Al Gore, a Vietnam war veteran, as a running mate in part "to shore up his own draft record."

To those who suggest that the recent dust-up with Saddam Hussein was at best a mixed political blessing for Bush because it reminded voters who still rules Iraq, Teeter says: "Anything that puts the focus on foreign policy, the better it is for us, and gets more important as we get into October." As the election draws near, he says, "no question in the public's mind is more important" than who is the commander-in-chief.

Teeter dismisses the Clinton-Gore "Bubba" ticket as a threat to Bush in Dixie and predicts that "we'll win virtually all of the South, and lock it up early." This is a very rosy view from within the eye of the political storm. But Teeter has been there before.

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