WASHINGTON — Despite talk of panic among members of his reelection team, President Bush is reassuring aides that the real campaign does not begin until the Republican Convention later this month and that polls showing Democratic nominee Bill Clinton with huge leads should not be taken seriously.
Bush's instincts on political timing have served him well in the past, his advisers note. But some of them are seriously concerned that Clinton may build an insurmountable lead while the President delays full-scale campaigning and fails to issue a comprehensive agenda for another four-year term.
"He's told associates, many of them wringing their hands and sounding the alarm, that he doesn't care about the outside views of this, he thinks 2 1/2 months is plenty of time to run the campaign," a White House aide said. "He's out in the stratosphere and just not putting out a solid message."
In some nationwide presidential preference polls, Clinton already has expanded on large margins he rolled up immediately after the Democratic Convention in mid-July. For example, his margin over Bush had increased to 30% from 25% in a tracking poll completed several days ago by the Times Mirror Center for People and the Press.
Republican strategists are counting on James A. Baker III to resign as secretary of state and take over the Bush campaign shortly before the GOP convention begins in Houston on Aug. 17. They hope Baker can bring some order to the campaign and help Bush emerge from the convention with enough momentum to eventually overtake Clinton.
Although neither Bush nor Baker has confirmed that Baker will leave the State Department to take over the campaign, several longtime Bush advisers have said the decision has been made because of the drift and disarray in the President's campaign.
"If Baker doesn't come aboard," said one longtime Bush adviser, "this situation could be terminal. He's got to come aboard, and I believe he will. The problem is we don't have a strong person (on the reelection team) to make decisions, and there's no strategic sense of where the campaign is going."
Former Republican Party Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., asked what he thinks is ailing the Bush campaign, said, "What campaign?"
That view was voiced by several other Republican strategists who seemed mystified that Bush appears unruffled by all the criticism of his reelection effort.
"I'd like to see some hard-hitting Bush campaign advertising out there right now," said Fahrenkopf, who added that between the Democratic and Republican conventions in 1988, the Bush campaign used about $5 million in ads, which helped reduce Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis' 17-percentage-point lead in the polls by 10 points.
Fahrenkopf said while there still may be time for Baker to rescue the campaign, Clinton's large leads in various polls "are making everyone panicky and run scared."
And Lyn Nofziger, a senior political adviser to former President Ronald Reagan, said he thinks that time already is running out and that "Bush hasn't gotten his act together yet and the other guys are running strong."
Nofziger said Bush reminds him of an old racehorse named Malicious "who used to race in Mexico and always ran about 40 lengths back and once in a while would win. George Bush is that far back; it remains to be seen whether he can close the gap."
The campaign's continuing problems were on display recently when Nofziger and a number of other Reagan loyalists met at the White House to discuss campaign strategy with top Bush aides. The aides included White House Chief of Staff Samuel K. Skinner, who some of Bush's closest advisers view, in the words of one, as "a disaster" as a political strategist.
The Reagan loyalists were stunned when Skinner rejected a suggestion that conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, whose insurgent challenge to Bush eventually was thwarted after a series of bruising Republican primaries, be "brought back into the fold" to campaign for Bush.
Skinner said Buchanan, who harshly criticized Bush during the primaries, should not be asked to participate in the campaign "after those things he said about the President."
Nofziger retorted: "What the hell difference does that make? Do you want to win or do you want revenge? If you want to get even with Pat, get even after the election."
Despite Skinner's opposition, the Bush campaign extended a belated invitation to Buchanan to address the Republican Convention.
And the campaign announced Saturday that preliminary plans call for Buchanan to give his speech in prime time on the convention's opening night. "President Bush has talked with Pat, and he is pleased to have Pat as part of the convention program," said program Chairman Craig Fuller.