Bush's slippage in polls no cause for alarm just yet; Texas Gov. George W. Bush still holds a commanding lead over both of his potential general election opponents . . . but polls no longer depict a landslide in the making.


MANCHESTER, N. H. -- Early in 1980, Ronald Reagan was a prohibitive favorite for the Republican presidential nomination. He had come within an ace of snatching it away from President Gerald R. Ford four years earlier and it seemed unlikely he could be denied the second time around.

So Mr. Reagan's managers decided to limit his campaigning for the Iowa precinct caucuses because they wanted to minimize the danger of him committing some gaffe that would put his position in jeopardy. He made only two or three brief visits to the state while such rivals as George Bush campaigned for months.

As it turned out, Mr. Reagan had made a serious miscalculation. When the caucuses finally rolled around, Mr. Bush scored an upset triumph over the California conservative, casting doubt for the first time on the inevitability of his nomination. And the informed consensus among the political managers is that Mr. Reagan had paid a price for taking Iowa voters for granted.

History's lesson

As it turned out, Mr. Bush's momentum -- "the Big Mo," he liked to call it -- was short lived. With 29 days between Iowa and the New Hampshire primary that year, Mr. Reagan campaigned aggressively and won the primary here and the nomination itself with ease.

That bit of political history is worth recalling now, however, because it illustrates how an electorate can be influenced by the perception that it is being slighted or even ignored. The pertinent question is whether Gov. George W. Bush of Texas may be risking some similar embarrassment because of a perception that he is not paying full obeisance to New Hampshire.

In fact, he clearly is not slighting primary voters here. He has repeatedly visited the state since summer. And he has agreed to participate in some candidate debates here starting next month.

But the fact that he is skipping the forum at Dartmouth University this week has suggested at least the impression that he is not properly attentive to the Granite State.

Slipping slightly

Moreover, this issue has become a part of the political dialogue at just the time Mr. Bush seems to be slipping slightly in the opinion polls. He still holds a commanding lead over both of his potential general election opponents -- Vice President Al Gore and Bill Bradley -- but polls no longer depict a landslide in the making.

Mr. Bush also is seeing some erosion of his margin here over Sen. John S. McCain of Arizona, the one rival the political wise guys believe might make a serious challenge. It was inevitable that Mr. Bush's gaudy margins over other Republicans would decline. At one point last summer, he had more support than all his rivals combined.

But the fact that the contest for the Republican nomination has assumed more realistic dimensions does not prevent the buzz among political activists here about whether Mr. Bush might be vulnerable, after all.

The McCain challenge

There are, nonetheless, several factors that limit the validity of comparisons with any past campaign. The principal one, of course, is money. Even those who might like to see someone else -- meaning Mr. McCain most often -- mount a serious challenge must recognize that we have never had a candidate enter the primary season with $50 million in hand and the ability to raise apparently unlimited additional amounts as it becomes necessary.

Money aside, up to this point Mr. Bush has shown himself to be an able campaigner. He won two elections in Texas, upsetting an incumbent in the first and winning two-thirds of the vote in the second.

Also, he has cut into such Democratic constituencies as Hispanic-Americans and African-Americans. He has shown a personal amiability that comes through the television screens.

Finally, he is supported by a campaign operation that has shown itself to have big-league savvy. If Mr. Bush is threatened by appearing to be aloof, he has ways to fix it.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

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