HOUSTON -- President Bush fired the first shots of his come-from-behind fight for a second term last night as the Republican National Convention drew to a thunderous close.
Amid the chants of "Four more years," there were few signs that Mr. Bush has a new battle plan for a second term beyond a vague promise of an across-the-board tax cut. He broke no major new ground in a stemwinder of an acceptance speech that bore the stamp of his new campaign chairman, James A. Baker III.
Inside the Astrodome, the convention ended in a blizzard of balloons and fireworks, and party members were hoping Mr. Bush's rhetoric would provide the pyrotechnics to spark one of the biggest comebacks in modern political history.
As the 10-week general election campaign begins, the president is clearly the underdog, though new poll results released yesterday showed him starting to close the gap against Democrat Bill Clinton.
"This election is about change," Mr. Bush said in his 59-minute speech. "The question is: Who do you trust to make change work for you?" Thousands of flag-waving, sign-toting delegates on the convention floor responded with chants of "George Bush" and "We trust George."
But Mr. Bush appeared reluctant to offer a radical shift in his
policies. His speech offered little more than recycled proposals from his first three and a half years in office, including a cap on new government spending, a line-item veto and a balanced budget amendment.
Mr. Bush's threat last night to veto any appropriations bill that exceeded his budget request has long been under consideration at the White House. Another idea, to allow voters to earmark up to 10 percent of their tax payment for deficit reduction, is the brainchild of conservative Rep. Robert S. Walker of Pennsylvania.
Near the end of his speech, Mr. Bush also promised "across-the-board tax cuts" as long as Congress agreed to cut spending by the same amount. But he did not specify which programs should be eliminated to finance a tax cut.
The speech was liberally laced with potshots at Mr. Clinton, whom he termed "Carter II."
Claiming that his opponent has taken both sides on many issues, Mr. Bush said, "he's been spotted in more places than Elvis Presley."
Mr. Bush acknowledged that many Americans still have questions about him, nearly four years after taking office. He proclaimed, "I feel great," in response to persistent, unsubstantiated rumors that he is seriously ill.
To cheers from the largely conservative convention throng, he also expressed "regrets" to his party for breaking the "no new taxes" pledge made in his acceptance speech four years ago. He called it "a bad call" and "a mistake."
Mr. Bush insisted his economic policies "haven't failed. They haven't been tried." Though acknowledging that the public is tired of the Washington "blame game," he again made Congress prime target, calling on voters to "roll back the roadblock" in Washington by electing a Republican House and Senate this fall.
Contrasting his foreign policy record with Mr. Clinton's lack of credentials in that area, Mr. Bush said the United States must become "an economic superpower and an export superpower" in order to "win the peace" in the post-Cold War era. That language, along with other ideas in the speech, were lifted directly from the farewell speech Mr. Baker gave last week as he prepared to step down as secretary of state.
In a veiled attack on Mr. Clinton's decision to avoid the Vietnam War draft, Mr. Bush made repeated and emotional references to his service in World War II, calling it a time "when God introduces you to yourself."
As the four-day convention was ending, a voter survey Tuesday and Wednesday by CBS News found Mr. Bush pulling within 11 %% percentage points of the Arkansas governor. A week ago the margin was 18 points.
The poll also showed that this week's convention is achieving one of its political goals -- driving up negative feelings toward Mr. Clinton. However, voters still retain a positive overall impression of the Democratic nominee, while Mr. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle continue to be viewed unfavorably.
Less likely to turn around quickly is the sluggish economy, which has stuttered along at a slow rate of growth for months. As if to underscore that fact, new Labor Department figures released yesterday morning showed the number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits shot up last week to a 10-year high.
Mr. Bush was slow to act when the expected economic recovery failed to ignite last year, and some of his top advisers still argue that the economic climate is not nearly as bad as many Americans think.
"A lot of that is attitudinal and not real experience," White House pollster Robert Teeter, the president's campaign chairman, told reporters. He blamed the downbeat national mood -- as many as four out of five Americans think the country has gotten off on the wrong track -- in part on slanted news coverage that has made things look worse than they really are.
In a response to the Bush remarks, Mr. Clinton drew attention to the unkept pledges from the president's 1988 acceptance speech.
"He promised 15 million new jobs, no new taxes, the environmental president, an education presidency," Mr. Clinton said in Michigan. "Now we don't have to read his lips. We can read his record."
The combative tone of the closing convention session was set by Mr. Quayle, who cast this fall's election as a struggle across the "cultural divide" separating Democrats and Republicans.
"It is a difference between fighting for what is right and refusing to see what is wrong," the vice president said.
Mr. Quayle is attempting to overhaul his public image after four years as the butt of numerous jokes. He described himself last night as "stronger" and "more confident" than he was in 1988, striking a note of proud defiance as he accepted renomination.
"I know my critics wish I were not standing here tonight," he told the delegates. "I stand before you, and before the American people, unbowed, unbroken and ready to keep fighting for our beliefs."
Mr. Quayle joined eagerly in the evening's Congress-bashing, stealing the most famous line from Sen. Al Gore's vice presidential acceptance speech at last month's Democratic convention and turning it against the other party.
"It is time for them to go," he said of Democrats who control Capitol Hill. "If the Democrats in Congress can't run their own restaurant, can't run their own post office and can't run their own bank, they sure can't be trusted to run our country.
"There is only one thing to say about the spend-everything, block-everything, know-nothing Democratic Congress. It is time for them to go," he said, as the delegates shouted "no more Gore."
He jabbed hard at the Clinton-Gore ticket -- calling them tools of the education lobby, the media elite and the Hollywood crowd -- and poked fun at himself in the process.
"If they're moderates, I'm a world champion speller," Mr. Quayle said, repeating a line he has used often in campaign speeches since misspelling the word "potato" at a school spelling bee in New Jersey. The partisan crowd roared with good-natured glee.
Earlier, former President Gerald R. Ford became one of the few convention speakers to point out Mr. Bush's lagging popularity.
"From what you read and watch in the news media, from all you see in the opinion polls, and hear from the Democrats, the Bush presidency is finished, done, kaput, the ball game's over," he said, adding: "I do not believe it. You don't believe it."
Mr. Ford also picked up the convention theme that Americans who want change in Washington should replace the Democrats in Congress, rather than the Republican in the White House. Recent polls show that nine out of every 10 Americans say they want change but fewer than one in six believes that Mr. Bush can provide it.
He also recalled his own comeback from a 33-point deficit in the polls during the 1976 campaign against Jimmy Carter, the last Southern governor to run for president before Mr. Clinton.