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August 16, 1992|David R. Gergen | David R. Gergen, editor-at-large for U.S. News & World Report, served as communications director in the Reagan White House from 1981 to 1983

WASHINGTON — Viewers tuning in to the Republican Convention this week may rub their eyes and wonder if they are watching the other party. With the reversal of fortunes in recent months, Republicans now look like Democrats used to--fractious, frazzled and a tad forlorn. Heading into Houston, the GOP is desperately looking for the keys that will let George Bush out of the basement and back into the fight with Bill Clinton. So far, the Republicans think they have three answers to their problems--but are arguing over two others that may be more important. Unless they can agree soon, the campaign may be doomed.

For veterans of past races, 1992 is beginning to smell like 1976. That year Gerald R. Ford found himself 27 points behind Jimmy Carter after the Democratic Convention. James A. Baker III came riding to the rescue as campaign manager and Ford staged a dramatic comeback. The only problem: Ford still lost. Even worse for the GOP, Bush may have a far tougher time making up his 25-point deficit than Ford did: Voters think of him much more negatively and he is facing a more professional, harder-hitting team than Carter put on the field.

So, what can turn things around for Bush? The three key points Republicans have agreed on so far:

Baker's Return: White House aides now acknowledge that the past nine months of leadership under chief of staff Samuel K. Skinner have been a political disaster. Skinner had a solid record when he was selected to run the White House, but he soon proved to be completely miscast, uncertain what to do. Figuring out a response to the Los Angeles riots was said to be especially traumatic. As chaos set in, Skinner seemed to be intimidated by Bush and to lose his self-confidence. Gradually, the rest of the staff lost its confidence, too, and morale sank to rock bottom.

Baker has a storied reputation within GOP ranks, and it has been fortified by private GOP polls showing him towering above other Bush appointees in public approval. Bush's announcement that Baker was on his way brought tears of relief to some junior White House staffers.

In effect, Baker will be deputy-President, for Bush will be sharing an unprecedented amount of power with him. Not only is Baker to run the campaign and oversee day-to-day operations, but Bush has asked him to craft a policy agenda for the second term, negotiate with Congress, serve as chief spokesman and run foreign policy with his left hand.

Neither man wanted the switch. Baker has spent recent years escaping his reputation as a "pol." His emotional State Department farewell, so uncharacteristic, showed how anguished he is. It must have been especially galling when Clinton called him one of the GOP's best handlers. Bush doesn't want Baker around for an obvious reason: the appearance that he can't do it on his own. But in the end, both accepted the inevitability of the change.

Bush's Revival: For months, Bush has advised aides not to worry, that his "political clock" told him he shouldn't start campaigning until the convention. They weren't sure whether to believe him, but when he also said Ross Perot would never run--and he was right--they decided he must be right about this, too. Now, even Bush admits he was wrong about his timing and that he has given the Democrats too much slack.

A few weeks ago, say aides, Bush began to focus on politics and they think his campaign rust is wearing off. Campaign advisers say Bush is beginning to connect with audiences and, as a result, his own juices are flowing. It's an article of faith in the Bush camp that once he returns to form, Bush is a better campaigner than Clinton and will close the gap between them. That remains to be seen. It's true that Bush has long been underestimated as a politician, but it's also true that Clinton is far more skillful on the stump than Republicans yet appreciate.

Clinton's Unmasking: Democratic candidate Bob Kerrey said early this year that, if Clinton got the nomination, Republicans would open him up like a peanut. That is just what GOP leaders hope to do in Houston, vowing they will "peel" him open in front of the nation. "He has been receiving the benefit of the doubt so far," a top Bush adviser says. "We now have to remove that benefit, so that we're on an even playing field."

Clinton's areas of vulnerability, his opponents believe, are his economic proposals and his record as governor. Republicans all over Washington have been doing computer runs on Clinton's economic plan, and they think they have a good case that he would destroy hundreds of thousands of jobs with higher taxes and stiffer business regulation. As for Arkansas, they say, why should the country elect someone who has taken a state from 49th to 48th, or is it 50th to 47th? In essence, Republicans would like to borrow a page from the winning strategy of Britain's Conservative Party: Admit things aren't going well, but scare voters into believing they could get a lot worse.

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