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Bush Behaves Like an Incumbent

The Running Arguments, A Continuing Series Surveying The Presidental Campaign And Candidates

March 27, 1988|Stuart K. Spencer | Stuart K. Spencer served as senior campaign adviser to Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984

IRVINE — George Bush is almost there--no, not just to the nomination--to the front door of the White House. What we have witnessed over the last seven weeks is a one-dip band wagon that could carry the vice president through New Orleans to November and beyond.

The Bush campaign strategy for the Republican nomination has been that of an incumbent. For the last several years, he has made a lot of trips, attended a lot of GOP state party functions and earned a lot of IOU's from the Republican Establishment. The vice president's presence helps fill the house and the coffers. The sight of that big plane dropping from the sky shows clout, and it's hard to tell his plane from Air Force One--unless you happen to be into tail-fin numbers.

The incumbent strategy fits for the preconvention phase of campaign '88. This was proved in exit polls on Super Tuesday: About 80% of voters in Republican primaries said they approved of the way President Reagan was running the country--and a large majority of them voted for George Bush. So far so good.

Yet the week between Iowa and New Hampshire had to be the worst of Bush's political life. He had worked hard and aimed to please and he ended up in the teens, behind not only Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas but a guy from Virginia who had never run for office and whose claim to fame included hurricane diversions.

Two of Bush's best traits are loyalty and gameness. He knew long before Iowa that that state did not hold the Reagan Administration in highest regard, yet he did not try distancing himself from the President for a few more votes. He also knew that his relationship to Reagan was perhaps his most substantial asset overall, and it would pay dividends down the line.

When Iowa washed over him like the seventh wave of a full moon tide, he got up and went to work in New Hampshire asking people for their vote--retail. It worked, even though it did require three breakfasts in three towns one morning. You do what you have to do in politics. The flexibility shown by Bush and his campaign in New Hampshire proves his staff can run any type of campaign needed to get the win.

Bush's current incumbent strategy is also a "cocoon" strategy. It insulates the candidate from a press eager for, and versed in, the methods of "gotcha" journalism. When you are ahead, don't give your candidate opportunities to stumble.

In 1976, Gerald R. Ford's presidential campaign introduced the "Rose Garden" strategy. The President did his job and did not go on the road much. Diligence to the work ethic, perhaps. But the polls showed Ford losing points to Jimmy Carter whenever he left town, and gaining (or at least not losing) when he stayed in Washington. Naturally, he stayed home.

They say that a lawyer who handles his own case has a fool for a client. The same can be said for a candidate who micromanages his own campaign. The rules are different. The guy out front shouldn't worry whether or not the balloons fall on time.

Unlike Dole, Bush is a campaign manager's dream. By that I do not mean any easy or sure winner, but a candidate who listens and accepts political advice from his advisers and acts accordingly. This is a trait he shares with the President, pros respecting pros.

One of Bush's strengths is his current job. He is the second half of the Reagan-Bush Administration. If the economy holds up he stands to be rewarded as the junior captain of the Good Ship Reagan. He is Ronald Reagan's man and has his friendship and support--not of the "I endorse . . ." quality, yet, but the kind that shows itself in a look or a smile.

This is extremely important. In years past, two incumbent vice presidents sought to succeed their bosses. Both failed, and neither had the support of their Presidents to the degree Bush has. Late in 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson did not come to a rally for Hubert H. Humphrey at Houston's Astrodome until he found out, late, that the crowd was going to be big.

In 1960, Richard M. Nixon was running an "incumbent strategy"--stressing that he had participated in "the great decisions of the Eisenhower Administration." At a press conference, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was asked to name some of the "great decisions" Nixon had participated in. Eisenhower's response was basically, "If you give me a week, I might be able to think of one." That was a kiss-off to Nixon's campaign. Don't expect Reagan to slam one of Bush's "themes" back in his face like that--the President knows the script.

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