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If Ever the GOP Needed Unity . . . : Bush's reelection hopes may ride on the convention's image

August 16, 1992

For the first time in years, the Republican Party will gather for its quadrennial convention with an air of uncertainty, even gloom, hanging over it. The nation's economy is in the doldrums--or worse, in California's case--and all that has put President Bush's chances of reelection in some doubt.

Even last week's announcement that Secretary James A. Baker III will leave the State Department to become White House chief of staff and de facto campaign manager for his old friend, whom he helped win election in 1988, can be read two ways. To doubters it is one more sign of disarray in the Bush camp. To the faithful it's a sign that the Bush team is getting its act together.

But it would be a mistake to write off this week's GOP conclave in Houston as an exercise in futility. November's election is still a long way off, and many voters remain uncertain about Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton despite last month's smoothly run Democratic convention in New York City. The Democrats' televised extravaganza got the Bill Clinton-Al Gore campaign off to a strong start, and the momentum is still there according to the public opinion polls. The GOP faithful can reassure themselves by remembering that, prior to the Republican convention in New Orleans four years ago, the polls showed Bush trailing the Democratic nominee, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis. But Clinton is not Dukakis and the political climate has changed since 1988.

Then, the GOP comeback began with a well-managed convention that showed the nation a party united and determined to carry on the legacy of eight years of Ronald Reagan. So the key test facing the GOP this time around is demonstrating it is still united and still has a sense of purpose after four years of George Bush and Dan Quayle.

Certainly Bush has noteworthy achievements--the Cold War's end, the mobilization of the allied force that pushed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, tentative but real movement toward peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors and, most recently, a free trade agreement with Mexico and Canada.

But, unfortunately for Bush, this may be one of those years when voters are more concerned with domestic issues. And the biggest issue is the sorry state of the U.S. economy. Here the Bush record is, at best, mixed. The White House pointed fingers at the Democrat-controlled Congress, the source of many headline-grabbing money scandals and a body that has done little to hack away at the massive federal deficit. The question is whether Congress-bashing will be an effective tool for an incumbent President in winning reelection.

The best hope for the GOP is to make Houston a repeat of the 1988 meeting in New Orleans, which culminated in what remains the best speech of the President's career.

Bush's address accepting the GOP nomination had many well-remembered phrases, including "a thousand points of light," and "Read my lips, no new taxes." Four years later that speech can be read two ways. Bush must remind people how they were inspired by the former phrase without drawing attention to how many feel betrayed because the latter promise was broken. It won't be easy. But watching Bush and his party try should at least make the proceedings in Houston interesting.

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