HOUSTON -- The Republican Party that is meeting here for the next four days has all the outward appearance of what it was 12 years ago when Ronald Reagan, who addresses the convention tonight, launched his political revolution at the party gathering in Detroit.
It presents itself as the party of staunch conservatism, starting with its strict prohibition against abortion, first written into its platform at that 1980 convention. It rails against "tax-and-spend liberal" Democrats. It offers itself as the stalwart defender of U.S. interests abroad and of the victims of crime at home, and it denounces big government in Washington -- especially the Democratic-controlled Congress.
But within the core of the meeting are clear signs that the Reagan revolution -- which its architects hoped and believed would bring about a long-sought party realignment in the country, giving majority status at last to the conservatives -- has already stalled in its tracks.
Mr. Reagan's appearance at the Astrodome tonight will no doubt touch Republican heartstrings, but it will remain for President Bush himself to make the case for leaving the country's future in Republican hands. Reaganism under Mr. Bush has not been the same, either for voters or for many party conservatives who fault Mr. Bush for failing to adhere strictly to his predecessor's blueprint for economic health.
The Reagan revolution was supposed to do for the GOP what the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt did for the Democrats. But instead of ushering in a long reign of government management in the economy and social welfare of the country, it was to begin decades of hands-off government giving free enterprise -- and individual responsibility -- its head.
Under Mr. Reagan, who preached this ideology with a persuasive fervor, millions of blue-collar and other middle-income Democrats flocked to the Republican banner, as did Southern Democrats, cutting into the core of the old Democratic coalition anchored by organized labor. In ways subtle and obvious, the Reagan revolution also capitalized on racial fears of job and street security to maintain the GOP as a party with its welcome mat out basically for white voters.
Mr. Bush, who came to the command post of that revolution in 1988, continues to pose as its rightful heir and caretaker. But after four years in charge, the revolution has lost much of its steam, of its direction, of its optimism and its unity. There is dissension in the ranks with Mr. Bush -- never a favorite of conservatives -- cast as the hapless culprit, or even an impostor who merely posed as a conservative under Mr. Reagan as a route to eventual power.
Critics have accused him of betraying the revolution, chiefly in his 1990 budget compromise with congressional Democrats that obliged him to break his 1988 promise to "read my lips -- no new taxes." And while they have not seriously challenged his renomination, they have called on him to stand up and be counted as a true conservative by adopting a much more boldly conservative agenda for the next four years and campaigning all-out for a Republican-controlled Congress (although realistically it does not appear to be in the cards).
The campaign war cry that Mr. Reagan used so effectively in his campaign against President Jimmy Carter -- "Are you better-off today than you were four years ago?" -- has been purloined by the Democrats as a stagnant economy under Mr. Bush has made it well-nigh impossible to use his first-term stewardship of domestic affairs as an arguing point for re-election.
But the party's difficulties go far beyond the immediate state of the economy or Mr. Bush's handling of it. The whole premise of the Reagan revolution -- that deep tax cuts could, even in the face of sharply increased defense spending, spur unprecedented economic growth and well-being -- has been unmasked for what Mr. Bush as a presidential candidate in 1980 called "voodoo economics." The federal deficit has soared out of sight, and Mr. Bush has been reduced to blaming his woes at home on uncooperative Democrats in Congress.
After a first year in the White House in which his popularity surprisingly surpassed even that of Mr. Reagan, capped by a superlative demonstration of foreign policy leadership in rallying global support to oust invading Iraqi forces from Kuwait, Mr. Bush's popularity has plunged to an equally unprecedented low. His hopes of riding easily into a second term on the strength of the Persian Gulf war leadership have faded as Iraq's Saddam Hussein, once compared to Hitler by Mr. Bush, has survived to plague him.
The collapse of communism in Europe, for which Mr. Bush has claimed credit despite a 45-year bipartisan policy of militant containment, has undercut the traditional advantage of any incumbent to emphasize his experience in handling world crises and has shifted voter attention to problems at home. In fact, the whole Republican Party, which has long advertised itself as a citadel of anti-communism, now finds itself without that strong talking point for support.
An irony of the 1992 campaign found one of the party's most outspoken commentators on the evils of communism and other foreign policy matters, Patrick J. Buchanan, scoring heavily against Mr. Bush in early primaries in New Hampshire and elsewhere by focusing on domestic ills such as high unemployment and the nation's declining industrial base. Mr. Buchanan and, later, Texas billionaire Ross Perot, won notable support from Reagan Democrats disillusioned with Mr. Bush.
These onslaughts obliged the Bush campaign to focus much of its energies in the pre-convention period to winning back the party's base. And while the campaign chairman through the primaries, pollster-strategist Robert Teeter, says this effort has been going well, it has been a costly and time-consuming undertaking that past Republican nominees have seldom had to address.
The last time there was any notable internal split in the GOP, when Mr. Reagan challenged the nomination of unelected President Gerald R. Ford in 1976, the party lined up behind Mr. Ford after the convention (although there was criticism afterward that Mr. Reagan personally did not do all he might have for Mr. Ford). In 1964, many supporters of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York walked out of the convention upon the nomination of Barry Goldwater, but the Arizona senator was a goner against Lyndon B. Johnson with or without the Rockefeller Republicans.
No such sharp desertion faces Mr. Bush this time, but his political weakness has obliged him to woo the very conservatives who are his most vocal critics, as seen in the platform concessions made to them and his campaign emphasis on cultural and social issues such as "family values."
Even many of the Republican delegates who stand foursquare behind Mr. Bush have come to the convention in a state of trepidation as they look at polls indicating that he is trailing the Democratic nominee, Bill Clinton of Arkansas, by as much as 25 points nationally and is behind him even in Texas, Mr. Bush's adopted home state. That concern has fanned wishful thinking among some that Vice President Dan Quayle, the subject of endless ridicule since Mr. Bush surprised the 1988 convention by picking him, might yet be jettisoned.
That notion has been repeatedly turned aside by Mr. Bush, and Mr. Quayle has taken up the traditional vice presidential duties as front man in attacking the Democratic ticket, in a manner that has pleased the very conservatives who have little use for Mr. Bush. For that reason alone -- to protect his flank on the party's right -- it was not in the cards for Mr. Bush to dump the man he said in 1988 was qualified to replace him if necessary.
The state of the Republican election machinery -- always a great strength in presidential elections going back at least to the Nixon years -- is also a matter of concern as the delegates get ready to renominate the Bush-Quayle ticket. That machinery appears to have been paralyzed or at least hampered by the disinclination of Mr. Bush to engage in all-out campaign combat until after this week's convention. The need to jar both the machinery and the candidate is clearly behind the recall of Secretary of State James A. Baker III, Mr. Bush's longtime friend and political guru, to the campaign wars.
All these factors have created a challenge for the Republicans to make their convention a celebration of the first four years of George Bush's presidency and a strong argument for four more years. Hoping for a "bounce" in the polls from the event, the planners instead have been occupied with damage control, of which Mr. Reagan's appearance tonight will be a conspicuous part.