HOUSTON -- President Bush's handling of the controversy involving whether he intends to bomb Iraq once again is a classic case of the kind of thing that keeps sending ripples of unease through the ranks of Republicans here.
It may be true, as it now appears, that the seeming crisis was essentially plastic; for the moment, at least, the Iraqis did not deny access to the United Nations inspectors, and so there is no need to start dropping bombs. But Mr. Bush once again appeared less than sure-footed in dealing with the situation -- and that lack of confident certainty is what political professionals fear most in a candidate for president.
When the story appeared in the New York Times alleging that Mr. Bush was planning an air strike on Iraq to shore himself up politically, the president could simply have issued a statement denying such plans or ignored the story. Instead, he chose to hold another instant news conference to denounce the "ugly speculation."
But then the president confused the issue by agreeing with a reporter's characterization and saying, "Yes, there's been a clear breach of security" -- thus suggesting that the story was based on some hard facts after all.
And if that were not clear enough, Mr. Bush agreed that, yes, the United States "has plans to be sure [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein does what he is supposed to do" in complying with the terms of his surrender in the Persian Gulf war.
Mr. Bush indignantly rejected a political motive.
"I totally deny that we are trying to pick a fight, and I totally deny that I'm trying to pick a fight for political reasons," he said, a stratagem that ensured another round of speculation about just that possibility.
This kind of clumsy political handling of events has become increasingly evident as the opinion polls continue to show Mr. Bush trailing Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton by 17 to 20 percentage points. Indeed, the president seems to flit from one position to another without any recognition of how it may appear.
One day he says the campaign is about "change," the next he argues it is about "trust," and the third he says it is about both of those things. One day he repeats his commitment to a hard line against abortion rights; the next he suggests he would apply a different standard to his granddaughter. One day he says he will not abide "sleaze" in his campaign; the next he brushes aside his appointees' thrusts at Mr. Clinton on the marital fidelity question.
This kind of running up and down the hill has been going on for months. When the economic deterioration came into sharp focus last fall, Mr. Bush promised a definitive plan in his State of the Union speech in January, at which point he brought forth a rehash of previous proposals coupled with a "this will not stand" threat against Congress if it did not act on his proposals within 100 days. At the end of that time, nothing happened.
Last spring, the riots in Los Angeles moved Mr. Bush finally to embrace, very publicly, the ideas of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack F. Kemp for improving conditions in the inner cities. In less than a month, however, Mr. Kemp was back in limbo, the cities forgotten.
None of this inconsistency would be as politically menacing in a different context. But this is a president who reversed himself on his most infamous commitment not to raise taxes. This is a president without a specific program for a second term on which he and his party can run. And this is a candidate who is in trouble and thus subject to particularly intense scrutiny from those whose political fortunes are so closely tied to his.
In a sense, Mr. Bush seems aware of the nature of the image he has presented. He has been insisting for months that the "political season" has not opened and that he has been itching to "go to general quarters" and open the battle with Mr. Clinton. Thus, even though it has been apparent all along that he was campaigning full tilt, the president appeared to be trying to buy some time.
The one saving grace for Mr. Bush may be that most voters are not yet paying close attention to the campaign. Although the opinion polls may show Mr. Clinton in a dominant position, no one in politics imagines the figures are immutable.
But veterans of the presidential campaign wars are convinced there is nothing worse than a candidate who doesn't seem sure-footed enough to evoke confidence from the electorate. And George Bush has been presenting himself so far as a candidate who has not yet decided what he wants to offer and instead is improvising as he goes along.