NEW ORLEANS — As George Bush's campaign manager, Lee Atwater, looks ahead to the presidential campaign, he worries that Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis might find a way to "kind of belly up" to Bush and suggest there is not much difference between them.
"If you get the Reagan Democrats to think there's not that much difference between these candidates, they'll say: 'Gosh, I can go be a Democrat again,' " Atwater frets.
Some GOP tacticians suggest that Bush's aggressively conservative running mate, Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle, might help draw distinctions between Dukakis and Bush, but Atwater's concern reflects a fundamental fact that haunts all Republicans in 1988: The triumphs of the Reagan era were built on borrowed votes.
Borrowed Democratic votes.
And, for a host of reasons, Republican strategists concede, Bush and Quayle will find it harder to borrow those votes than Ronald Reagan did.
Hurt by Reagan Successes
The Republicans are losing Reagan's special brand of personal political charm, of course. Far more important, Reagan's successes have robbed the GOP of many of the issues he rode to victory on. The double-digit inflation and high interest rates of Jimmy Carter's presidency are distant memories now, along with the sense of military weakness.
As the Democrats discovered, after they led the nation out of the Great Depression and on to victory in World War II, voters do not stay grateful very long. In effect, political professionals say, voters are now asking Republicans not just, "What have you done for us lately?" but also, "What can you do for us next?"
In that regard, Reagan has left his party short on the kinds of new issues and compelling ideas that would help it hold on to the Reagan Democrats.
"We lit a prairie fire a few years back," Reagan declared in his valedictory speech here Monday night. Yet, for all of his personal successes, Reagan did not create any coherent framework of ideas to help his party keep the blaze alive in the changing political environment the next President must face.
"There is no agenda," laments Patrick J. Buchanan, a key aide in both the Richard M. Nixon and Reagan White Houses.
"I don't think there is any question that Ronald Reagan has done a tremendous amount of good for the Republican Party," Democratic pollster Paul Maslin says. But, by establishing prosperity, Maslin argues, Reagan "has removed the Republican advantage from the table. And the American people are saying, 'OK, now we're concerned about these other things,' " which include the environment and such so-called family issues as child care and health care.
Opinion surveys of which party voters identify with provide one measure of the difficult task facing Republicans even after eight years of controlling the White House. Despite all the talk of a party realignment based on Reagan's conservative creed and his two smashing victories, Republicans are still in second place to the Democrats. They trail in party loyalty by 16 percentage points, as measured in a poll by the Gallup Organization last June.
That represents a narrowing of the 24-point Democratic advantage Gallup recorded eight years ago, before Reagan took over the White House. But it is a decline from the near parity with the Democrats that the Republicans achieved in the first flush of Reagan's 1984 landslide.
Given this partisan disadvantage going into the 1988 campaign, some Republican strategists contend that the choice of Quayle as running mate will help. His overall record of steadfast support for right-wing causes will underline the conservative bent of the GOP ticket, those strategists say, and enhance its appeal among Democrats who find Dukakis too liberal.
Democrats challenge this contention.
'Swing Democrats' Surveyed
They point to a survey taken by Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman of so-called "swing Democrats," two-thirds of whom voted for Reagan in 1984. The poll indicates that those voters are mainly concerned with the national economy and other domestic issues unrelated to the national security issues that are said to be Quayle's strong suit in the Senate.
Some GOP activists argue that, for the Republicans to win this election and narrow the party identification gap with the Democrats, they must show middle-class voters that they can deal with the newly emerging domestic issues that concern such voters.
But those are the sorts of concerns that Democrats are traditionally quicker to tackle than Republicans. And, where Reagan fell short, as many Republicans privately acknowledge, was in failing to find a way for conservative Republicans to overcome their suspicion of government and use its powers to help solve such problems.