HOUSTON -- For George Bush, the only way to go is up. But to reach a second term he'll have to scale a summit no modern president has ever climbed.
Mr. Bush has likened this year's campaign to 1948, when President Harry S. Truman scored the political upset of the century. But not even Truman was as far down in the polls that year as Mr. Bush is today.
Indeed, his prospects have sunk so low that some strategists within his own party are all but writing him off.
"The odds are Bush is going to lose," said a Republican consultant who worked to elect Mr. Bush in 1988. "It's not hopeless. But there aren't many people I know who make [Democratic nominee Bill] Clinton the underdog."
Amid such sour talk, Mr. Bush returns this week to Houston, his adopted hometown, to claim renomination.
His aides regard the four days of the Republican National Convention, which opens here tomorrow, as crucial to Mr. Bush's chances of catching Mr. Clinton, whose lead in recent polls ranged between 18 and 25 percentage points.
Robert M. Teeter, the president's longtime pollster and chairman of his re-election campaign, said in a recent interview that he expects the convention to propel Mr. Bush to within 8 to 15 points of the Democratic challenger by the end of next week.
"I'd rather have it 15 [points] the other way," he says. "But in this business, you've got to play the hand that's dealt you."
Even such modest expectations might be tough to achieve, though. Republican politicians both inside and outside the Bush campaign worry that Americans will pay even less attention to the doings in Houston than they did to the Democrats in New York last month.
"People will not watch our convention the way they watched theirs," said Mary Matalin, deputy manager of the Bush campaign. "They were looking at Clinton, to get to know him. I think they think they know [Mr. Bush]."
For months, many in the president's party and even his own campaign have urged him to tell the country where he intends to take it over the next four years. In fact, the widespread perception that Mr. Bush had no domestic blueprint for his first term is the reason he's in such trouble now, many analysts believe.
But if Mr. Bush does begin to unveil a new agenda this week, as he is expected to do in his acceptance speech Thursday night, voters may simply ignore him. "The biggest problem that Bush has today is that people have stopped listening to him," said Paul Wilson, a Republican consultant. "They've tuned him out."
Agrees Ed Goeas: "Is anybody going to listen to him? That's the question.
"People did listen to Bill Clinton," he notes, much as they did four years ago to Mr. Bush, when he delivered his acceptance speech at the GOP convention in New Orleans. That speech was regarded as a masterpiece, because it allowed Mr. Bush -- who had been in the public eye for a decade -- to redefine himself in the most personal, and politically favorable, of terms (as a "quiet man" who would complete the "mission" he and Ronald Reagan began in 1980).
This time, after four years as the most watched man in America, is almost certainly too late for Mr. Bush to "reintroduce" himself again. But he must somehow find a way to get millions of his fellow citizens to see him in a different light.
Republicans last week began a concerted effort to build an audience for the convention. Vice President Dan Quayle and Republican National Chairman Richard Bond delivered attention-getting attacks on Mr. Clinton and his wife, Hillary, and the news media. Mr. Bush himself began a series of one-on-one (( interviews with the TV networks, newsmagazines and national newspapers.
Barbara Bush also got into the act, revealing, in magazine interviews scheduled to appear on the newsstands convention week, that she believes abortion should be a matter of personal choice. Her popularity far exceeds her husband's, and her speech to the convention Wednesday night might very well be used as a teaser to get people to listen to Mr. Bush's address the following evening.
Some analysts have called that acceptance speech make-or-break for the president's re-election chances. That almost certainly is an exaggeration, says Larry McCarthy, a Republican media consultant.
But, he adds, "if Bush gives a bad speech, then it's going to be much, much harder to recover."
As Mr. Clinton's less-than-stellar acceptance address last month demonstrated, the overall impression generated by four days of intense convention coverage by the news media is more important than any single event.
In New York, the big news was party unity, a departure for the usually disputatious Democrats and a highly positive story line that helped produce a record post-convention "bounce" for Mr. Clinton in the polls.
In Houston, the tale thus far has been one of dissension and disharmony -- also a departure for the buttoned-down GOP crowd. Some Bush aides are already resigned to media coverage that is almost the flip side of upbeat stories on the Democrats. "It will not be covered in the same way the Democrats were," predicts Ms. Matalin of the Bush campaign. Aware that running against the news media is often a productive strategy, Bush backers, led by Mr. Quayle, have begun a crusade to portray the press as a pack of Bush bashers.
In truth, some of the most damaging attacks on Mr. Bush have come from inside his own party. The discontent in Republican circles has helped feed unsubstantiated reports that Mr. Quayle would be dumped or that Mr. Bush would decide not to run again.
Mr. Bush's decision last week to shake up his administration, the political equivalent of declaring bankruptcy, was offset by the belief of many Republicans that James A. Baker III, the new White House chief of staff, is the only man who can salvage the Bush campaign.
But internal tensions are likely to remain high within the party for the foreseeable future, fed by a new wave of polls that show Mr. Bush's unpopularity threatens to drag down other Republican candidates this fall.
Two recent national surveys have shown voters favoring Democrats over Republicans for Congress by as much as a 20-point margin, the worst such figures for the GOP in many years.
That may be one reason Republican senators and congressmen are staying away from this week's convention in droves. According to a survey by Congressional Quarterly, 15 of the 43 Republican senators plan to skip it; at least 70 of the 166 House members won't be attending, according to a USA Today survey.
By comparison, 50 of the 57 Democratic senators and 240 of the party's 268 House members were at the Democratic convention.