DES MOINES — Still hoping to win but preparing to lose. Thus, George Bush confronts mighty Iowa in the windup of a long campaign here.
This is the state he won over six rivals in the 1980 Republican presidential caucuses. In the resulting fame, he acquired rights to be Ronald Reagan's running mate. In other words, Iowa helped make George Bush.
"Eight years ago, I started as just an asterisk in the polls--with that star by your name that says you don't show up. And then, thanks to Iowa, I became vice president," Bush says.
Now, these years later, the polls portend a big Midwestern cold shoulder for the one-time favorite.
Caucus voting is only two weeks away, and all variety of voter samplings, apparently including his own, show Bush 10 or 15 points behind Sen. Bob Dole of next-door Kansas. Iowa, it seems, now threatens to try to unmake George Bush.
Burdened considerably by President Reagan's unpopularity in Iowa, Bush is playing the improbable role of underdog here, and is campaigning at a wearying pace. His standard community rally is organized at a high school gym, and he appears at so many that his campaign logo may as well be the sweat sock.
Bush puts on a tight smile and tells his large, if not always completely friendly, crowds he will not despair.
"I'm behind, I understand that. I don't mind it because I like to fight back . . . . You have to go for it sleeves rolled up and I like that," he says.
Saying it and believing it are different matters, however. And Bush sometimes lets his frustration show, asking for votes as plaintively as a thirsty man might ask for water.
'Need Your Support'
"Look, I need your support. If you're for me, I need you to come out to these caucuses," he says. "If you're for some other guy, think Florida--it's nice there in February. If you're undecided, talk to someone who is for me."
Bush's brain trust is likewise confounded. "We're ahead in 49 states. And we're behind in one," shrugs Peter Teeley, a longtime spokesman, with a look of disbelief.
The campaign is not without hope, though, for an upset among 120,000 or so voters in this state, who matter so much because they are first.
Bush has held back his main television advertising effort for one big blast at the end. And his campaign organization, at least at the top, is universally respected.
Polls do not show it, but his strategists insist that a large number, perhaps 40%, of GOP voters are still undecided and up for grabs. And many of those who have made up their mind are soft in their commitments, the Bush campaign believes.
"The maxim in Iowa is organize, organize, organize and get hot at the end," says Richard Bond, Bush's national political director. Bond has been working out of Des Moines for months trying to get the vice president back into contention here.
Iowa Not Slighted
And no one will accuse Bush of slighting Iowa just because things look difficult. By caucus night, he will have campaigned in 67 of 99 counties here, sometimes making six stops in a day.
What Iowans hear when the 14-car motorcade pulls into towns, some of them only a block or two long, is a speech with a ring of bird shot: A scattering of beliefs, snippets of personal biography, expressions of hopes for the future are all tossed out, almost randomly, in the hope of hitting voters with something.
Most frequently, Bush emphasizes education: "I want to be the education President." But in the same breath he acknowledges that the federal share of education funding is less than 10% nationally, and says: "That's as it should be."
He has recently added great emphasis on ethics in government, a theme with two apparent goals: To distance himself from the scandals of the Reagan Administration and to try to set himself apart from Dole, who has accepted large fees for public speaking.
"It troubles me when people in any administration confuse service with profit. I think I've gone the extra mile in my public life, never taking honorariums. I wrote a book recently, didn't take any advance on that. I'm a public servant now," Bush says.
A disciplined jogger whose fitness is never questioned, Bush nevertheless seems to show signs of weariness or boredom on the Iowa stump. He can sound slightly disjointed, as his mind darts this way and that, fielding a question. And he occasionally sounds as if he is overreaching in trying to contrast his background with Dole's.
For instance, it is time-honored Republicanism for candidates like Bush to brag how they started a business--"built something from the ground"--when a rival such as Dole has not. But are voters really moved when Bush, one-time ambassador to China, claims that he is the most profoundly qualified anti-communist in the pack "because I'm the only one who lived in a communist country?"
This is occurring just as Iowans are sharpening their interest--and their questions--in the presidential race.
Teens Ask Questions