DALLAS -- Just as he promised he would be, President Bush is back in the game.
He's kicking, clawing, bashing, flag-waving and baby-hoisting his way back to within striking distance of his Democratic challenger, Bill Clinton.
"You tell the governor we stand for family and faith and one nation under God," a noticeably buoyant Mr. Bush exhorted a gathering of nearly 10,000 supporters holding red, white and blue balloons and banners yesterday at a suburban shopping mall near Birmingham, Ala. "Then go tell the gridlock Congress and Bill Clinton, 'If you can't run with the big dogs, stay under the porch.' "
Later, at an appearance in a meeting before evangelical Christians in Dallas, Mr. Bush said, "Something is wrong when kids can get birth control in school but can't say a prayer."
The overwhelmingly Republican audiences who have gathered all over the South to see Mr. Bush on his three-day post-convention tour are obviously pleased and relieved to see their candidate fighting back.
"After being so discouraged by the polls, it's great to see such a positive reaction to him," said Michael Britton, 35, one of nearly 20,000 supporters who came out in the pouring rain of Woodstock, Ga., yesterday to cheer Mr. Bush on. "It seems like he has finally come out with some clear themes like family values, which is important to me."
The Bush-Quayle campaign downplayed the significance of polls taken on the last night of the Republican convention, which showed the president swiftly erasing the huge lead amassed by Mr. Clinton after the Democratic National Convention last month. Their caution was borne out yesterday by the release of three new polls that showed Mr. Clinton still leading by between 8 and 14 percentage points.
"You've got to be encouraged by a big jump in the polls," said Mr. Bush's campaign manager, Robert Teeter, who noted that the rebound came from groups that supported Mr. Bush in 1988: men, Catholics and Southerners. But Mr. Teeter said he didn't expect realistic figures to come in until about the middle of this week, when he predicted the president would be 8 to 10 percentage points behind.
Although his crowds seem to be growing more enthusiastic as the tour goes on, Mr. Bush is not creating the same excitement or drawing the same numbers that the Clinton-Gore team did on its first bus trip after the Democratic convention. People do not line the motorcade route in any more than sparse clumps.
But Mr. Bush is a more familiar commodity than the Democratic bus buddies, and his supporters are not smitten with the first blush of a new attraction.
Many seemed to be like Mr. Britton and his wife, Valerie: loyal backers who have become a little disenchanted over the past four years, but not nearly enough to vote for Mr. Clinton.
"I don't think Clinton's got it," said Enick Bell, 40, a sergeant in the National Guard who served eight months in Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf war and showed up at a rally in Gulfport, Miss., Friday in his camouflage fatigues to "show a lot of support for what the president has done."
Sergeant Bell said he was wary, though, about Mr. Bush's promise to cut taxes, after the president had broken his "no new taxes" pledge of the last campaign. "I hope this time he's telling the truth," he said.
Mr. Clinton has been working hard to undermine the president's credibility, complaining that Mr. Bush's promise to propose across-the-board tax cuts to the next Congress if it agrees to cut spending is "an election-year sucker punch."
The Democrat also contends that Mr. Bush is "lying" about Mr. Clinton and his record, including Mr. Bush's repeated claim that Mr. Clinton has proposed the "largest tax increase in history." In fact, the Reagan tax increase in 1982 and the tax increase Mr. Bush agreed to in 1990 are both larger than the $150 billion that Mr. Clinton has called for in higher taxes on the rich.
But the president and his campaign are banking on the notion that in the end most voters will trust Mr. Bush more than they do Mr. Clinton, whom the Bush campaign belittles for his failure to serve in the military and over allegations of marital infidelity. The president hinted at the personal issue with his reference to a characterization of Mr. Clinton by a longtime acquaintance as "a hard dog to keep on the porch."
"It's a choice between different agendas, different directions for our great country, and it's a choice about the character of the man who you want to lead this nation for another four years," Mr. Bush said in Woodstock, Ga.
L But his surrogates have been even harsher on the opposition.
Rep. Newt Gingrich, the Republican congressman who represents Woodstock, charged the Democrats yesterday with including in their platform a "Woody Allen" plank. He said he was referring to a platform line that asserts that "government doesn't raise children, people do."
"Wrong," Mr. Gingrich said. "Families raised children. Woody Allen didn't have incest with his non-daughter because they were a non-family."
He said Mr. Clinton and the Democrats are endorsing "alternative lifestyles," such as the relationship between Mr. Allen and Mia Farrow, who raised children together without being married.
The White House later sought to distance itself from Mr. Gingrich's remarks, but it did not disavow them outright.
"It's a free country. He can say what he wants. The president is running for president," said presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater.