NEW ORLEANS -- President Bush flew into Cajun Country over the weekend to dispense a little more federal largesse, in this case by signing a federal energy bill that encourages offshore drilling that, by Bush's reckoning, would create 45,000 new jobs in the Oil Patch.
The most obvious lesson in the president's appearance here -- and one quickly scheduled by Democratic nominee Bill Clinton -- is that the contest for Louisiana's nine electoral votes is far from over. And that, in turn, suggests troubles for Bush, who won the state with more than 54 percent of the vote four years ago.
The national polls may show the race drawing somewhat closer in terms of the popular vote, but the president is still groping for a combination of states that could produce the 270 electoral votes needed to win. By this stage of the campaign, Bush should be spending his entire time in states like New Jersey, Michigan and Ohio that he must have.
But what also is becoming clear in the final days of the campaign is that the Republicans are laying their heaviest stress on recapturing the so-called "Reagan Democrats" -- meaning nominal Democrats who left their party in droves to support Ronald Reagan twice and then George Bush in 1988.
Republican strategists say it is about time. These are voters who were drawn away from the Democrats by the feeling that they were too liberal on social questions and, above all, too free with the taxpayers' money. But they have been largely ignored by the Bush campaign all year, in the president's own failure to outline a coherent economic policy and in the party convention at Houston that was far more focused on religious questions than bread-and-butter concerns.
The results of this inattention have become increasingly clear. A recent poll in Alabama -- like Louisiana a state still surprisingly competitive -- found almost three out of four of those Reagan Democrats now inclined to return to their party and to Clinton, largely because of the economic concerns.
The Republicans were slow learners in recognizing this problem. They appear to have gotten the message only when their focus groups watching the first presidential debate reacted far more positively to Bush's depiction of Clinton as another tax-and-spend liberal than to his picture of him as someone who cannot be trusted. The voters seem to feel that way about both Bush and Clinton.
But the problem for Bush in directing his appeal to the Reagan Democrats is that, once again, he finds himself trying to enlist support that should have been locked up long ago, just as Louisiana and Alabama should have been. And that, in turn, inevitably means he is paying less attention to some other element of the coalition he needs -- perhaps the moderate suburban Republicans and independents who reacted so negatively against the control of the convention by the religious right.
These voters, part of Bush's original base going back to his first presidential campaign in 1980, are critical in the major industrial states. And defections in this group are a principal reason the president is lagging behind in such crucial states as California (54 electoral votes), Pennsylvania (23) and Illinois (22).
The cliche of this late stage of the campaign is that it is, for a change, the Republican candidate who must "thread a needle" to win -- meaning who has no margin for error in building a winning combination of states. That thesis is clearly correct. If Bush is out of the picture in California, Pennsylvania and Illinois as well as New York, Massachusetts and a dozen other states, he cannot afford to surrender Louisiana or Florida or Alabama from his base.
But the same demand applies to the diverse groups that make up his coalition. Although Clinton's lead in some of the national opinion polls has dwindled as Ross Perot has gained strength, Bush's share of the vote remains in the 30 percent to 35 percent range. That is the core Republican vote that any GOP candidate -- even Barry Goldwater in 1964 -- can expect. The president needs those independents and Reagan Democrats to thread the needle.
That is why we have the spectacle of George Bush at Acadiana High School talking about oil patch jobs with only 10 days left in the campaign. He still has work to do on the political fundamentals.