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'Roar' from Houston fades as Bush gropes for issues


WASHINGTON -- The concept of momentum is one that politicians cherish. They are convinced that campaigns ebb and flow as a result of the way candidates conduct themselves and sometimes because of outside events -- even one such as a hurricane.

The phenomenon was never clearer than in the past seven days. A week ago President Bush came "roaring out of Houston" -- in the favored phrase then -- on the wave of a convention that had been the focus of political news. There were new opinion polls showing Bush had cut sharply into the pre-convention lead held by Democratic nominee Bill Clinton.

But momentum can be reversed almost overnight, and by week's end the picture was entirely different -- one of Bush groping for an issue and on the defensive. Even those fickle polls had turned sour, in some cases restoring Clinton to the kind of margin he held before the convention. The honeymoon, it turned out, was almost indecently brief.

One reason, of course, was Hurricane Andrew, which turned the national attention away from politics to a genuine crisis that the president handled with cement mittens. Bush did the traditional politician's thing, dropping everything to fly south, first to Florida and then to Louisiana, to "inspect" the storm damage and get his picture taken doing so. But then he allowed three full days to pass without any follow-through that would deliver emergency help for the victims of the disaster.

For the president, it could hardly have been more awkward. The lethargy of his response reinforced the picture of him as a passive leader with a tin ear who understands the problems of people, whether Kurds or Floridians, only when they have been driven home by the television networks night after night. And it reinforced the notion that he is far more interested in crises abroad -- the plight of the Shiites in southern Iraq right now -- than those at home. There is obviously some unfairness in those perceptions, but politics is not always fair.

The president's loss of momentum could be seen in other aspects of the campaign, as well. As the polls showed a backlash, his campaign was forced to row back from the offensive on "family values." The voters at large, it turned out, were not the same as those who packed the Astrodome to roar their approval in Houston. Attacks on Hillary Clinton also were not paying the kind of dividends the convention seemed to promise.

The president seemed to be seizing new themes every day. The promise of an across-the-board tax cut was moved to a back burner when Bush said he would not become "bogged down" in details by spelling out how much tax relief and how it would be financed. The game now was, instead, to draw the broad picture of Clinton as another "tax and spend" liberal in the mold of Michael S. Dukakis and Walter F. Mondale.

Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle also seized on the general distrust of lawyers that is abroad in the land, both accusing Clinton of being a tool of the trial lawyers in his state. It was the kind of initiative that seems both risk-free and promising because lawyers, like the news media, are easy targets. But what does it have to do with providing more jobs?

Finally, the president found Clinton appealing to the "darker impulses" of the American people by advocating trade policies Bush considered less open than his own. The candidate who used Willie Horton and the Pledge of Allegiance to such good effect in 1988 had become the president who described Clinton as having "a reputation for opportunism." The president who told David Frost that "I will do what I have to do to be re-elected" now was saying Clinton is "the kind of guy who will say anything, do anything for political gain."

Bush made some gains in the week after Houston. New polls showed him ahead narrowly in two states he should win by wide margins, New Hampshire and Utah. Food and water had arrived in Florida, and the president was demonstrating his concern by going to Camp David, Md., rather than Kennebunkport, Maine, for the weekend and even canceling a campaign trip.

Bush is a politician who believes in the notion of momentum. When he defeated Ronald Reagan in the Iowa caucuses in 1980, he spent the next month crowing about "the Big Mo" he had achieved. By that standard, there has been little to crow about since he left Houston.

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