WASHINGTON — If the 1988 Republican presidential race fulfills its recent promises of degenerating into bitter, drawn-out warfare, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas may remember the New Hampshire primary as a latter-day Gettysburg--the critical battle where he could have won a decisive victory but failed. Tactically and logistically, Vice President George Bush now looks like the favorite; Dole armies face uphill terrain.
Part of Dole's weakness lies in his waspish demeanor, in his unfortunate inability so far to develop a presidential personality to match his governmental expertise. And part of the new GOP equation also reflects Bush's greater organizational depth in the upcoming March-April primaries, particularly Dixie's March 8 Super Tuesday contests.
Yet some of Dole's predicament simply reflects the institutional aspect of his task: the challenge of somehow convincing hierarchical, generally loyalist Republican voters to spurn a sitting vice president with decent poll ratings and a satchelful of party IOUs--and in the process partially turn their backs on Ronald Reagan and his political legacy. It's something Republicans don't do lightly; in mid-Depression 1932 the GOP renominated hapless President Herbert Hoover with barely a whimper (and also with barely a prayer in the general election).
Victory in New Hampshire made the precedents for Bush even more auspicious. Over the last half-century, whenever an early GOP front-runner won New Hampshire, he invariably went on to win nomination: Dwight D. Eisenhower, then Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford and Reagan. Even more to the point, Republican voters have no history of abandoning a front-runner who's been a solid late-winter favorite, both in party rank-and-file preference surveys and also in general election match-ups with leading Democrats.
All this should make Bush the easy nominee. And the March-April shift to states where the vice president has a solid organizational edge also helps.
But there are caveats, too--and criticisms that could be potentially effective for a daring rival. The big political book of 1988 may be historian Paul Kennedy's "Rise and Fall of the Great Powers," with its implicit message that the United States is going the way of the British Empire earlier in this century. Reagan's naive 1984 slogan, "Morning Again in America," has become a cruel irony.
Public awareness of America's global predicament, now beginning to spread rapidly, may emerge as a central theme in this year's debate. Opinion polls have begun confirming the electorate's jitters. An early February sampling for Newsweek found skittish Americans favoring tougher restraints on imports and reduced U.S. funding to defend rich Asian countries. A late-January CNN poll found a surprising plurality of Americans identifying the U.S. economy as weaker now than it was when Reagan took office in 1981. Such perceptions are dangerous for heir-apparent Bush. A bold GOP challenger would raise these themes now instead of letting the Administration play ostrich through autumn.
Then there is Bush's unusual personal vulnerability. He's the first vice president to be drawn in invisible ink for a prominent national cartoon strip. He's the first to suffer a national news weekly cover story on the "Wimp Factor." And he's the first former Central Intelligence Agency director to seek the Oval Office--also the first presidential contender to have been involved in a major foreign-policy scandal.
When survey-takers ask the electorate what Bush knew about the Iran-Contra mess, some 50%-75% answer that he knew more than he has admitted. And the former CIA director may also have some other dirty laundry in his closet. On the day of the New Hampshire primary, a major U.S. newspaper noted that lawyers for the Panamanian strongman, Brig. Gen. Manuel A. Noriega, just indicted by two Florida grand juries on drug and racketeering charges, had brought to Miami files they called "political dynamite" for the U.S. presidential race. The incendiary subject matter: links between Bush and Noriega. To an unknowable extent, Bush's CIA background and Iran-Contra exposure make him a conceivable time bomb for the August GOP national convention. One explosive revelation could doom his candidacy. That, too, ought be tossed into the 1988 debate among Republican decision-makers.
This ongoing Iran-Contra vulnerability was what prompted former GOP Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. to call Bush unelectable two weeks ago. Maybe so. Maybe not. The local disbelief that helped beat Bush in Iowa--a cockpit of skepticism about this Administration--counted for little in New Hampshire, New England's regional refugee camp for conservative stalwarts.