WASHINGTON -- As the presidential campaign heads for the second three-man debate in Richmond, Va., tomorrow, President Bush still has the task of selling voters on the notion that a second Bush term will provide the answers to economic recovery that the first term did not.
According to post-debate polls, Bush failed in the first debate to make the case that he does not intend to be the status quo president in a second term that Democratic nominee Bill Clinton and independent candidate Ross Perot painted him to be in St. Louis Sunday night.
The president's latest attempt to peddle himself as an agent of change was his rather off-handed disclosure in that first debate that his de facto campaign manager, James A. Baker, will take charge of the new economic approach he has promised for a second term. Only a few days earlier, Bush had said in a television interview that he expected that Baker would return to his old job of secretary of state from which Bush yanked him in August to try to salvage his flagging campaign.
The disclosure that Bush in effect would turn over the economic rescue effort to his favorite Mr. Fixit was followed by reports from "a senior administration official" that the heads of the three top handlers of the economy in the Bush administration would be disappearing by the start of a second Bush term. The three -- Secretary of Treasury Nicholas Brady, budget director Richard Darman and Council of Economic Advisers chairman Michael Boskin -- have borne the brunt of criticism inside and out of the Republican Party.
While such a move a few months ago might have helped the president's political situation, it smacks of desperation and political expediency. Bush looks like a man offering up his three eldest sons to assuage the wrath of the political gods, and in effect turning over to Baker the one most important job voters feel he himself hasn't been up to.
Clinton was widely criticized by the Bush campaign for his early slogan regarding his successful wife, Hillary, that promised "Buy one, get one free." He abandoned the pitch when Hillary became a bit too visible for his political good, but now Bush seems to be saying, "Elect me, get Jim Baker" -- hardly an expression of self-confidence.
Bush must also go into the second presidential debate wondering whether it was such a good idea to invite this guy Perot to the festivities. Perot may not have materially helped his own chances -- 42 percent of those who told ABC News they thought he won the debate said they wouldn't vote for him -- but he repeatedly touched up the incumbent.
By joining Clinton in repeated criticism of Bush -- and at one point defending Clinton's Vietnam protest record as a youthful indiscretion -- Perot was a key factor in establishing the dominant dynamic of the first debate: George Bush on the defensive.
ABC News found in its post-debate poll that although a plurality of viewers surveyed did think Perot won the 90-minute encounter, his performance did not substantially alter the shape of the presidential race, with Clinton still running 15 percent ahead of Bush, and Perot gaining several points but still a distant third. CBS News' poll had Clinton's lead at 12 points.
In the second debate, Bush and Clinton may not be able simply to ignore Perot, with no more than occasional verbal pats on the head, as they did in St. Louis.
Perot has insisted all along that his prime objective is to get Bush and Clinton to step up to the problem of the huge federal deficit created during the Reagan-Bush era. He now has the opportunity to do that, by virtue of having talked his way into the limelight with his quick quips and accentuation of the positive.
In all the attention generated by the feisty Texas billionaire, however, the central fact remains that time and opportunity continue to run out on Bush. He cannot afford to be upstaged again by Perot in the way he was in the first debate if he is to have much hope of catching Clinton. And if he is reduced to counting on Clinton committing a gaffe of sufficient dimension to destroy his own candidacy, it will be a telling commentary for an incumbent president who only a year ago seemed certain of re-election.