WASHINGTON -- In a darkened hotel ballroom the other evening, a black-tie audience of Washington's power elite got a sneak preview of President Bush's likely re-election campaign.
It came in the form of a stunning nine-minute videotape of the Persian Gulf war, produced by one of the media masterminds of the hugely successful 1984 Reagan re-election effort.
The flag-waving, gut-wrenching video, rich with action shots of U.S. troops in the desert and punctuated by Mr. Bush's words, was a smash hit with the lobbyists, Pentagon brass and senior government officials at the gala dinner, sponsored by defense contractors as a tribute to the military.
"We're proud of the president," stammered Democratic Representative John P. Murtha, a hulking ex-Marine from western Pennsylvania who was reduced to tears by the production.
How such war scenes will play with the larger audience of American voters a year and a half from now remains one of the big unanswered questions of the 1992 campaign. The Bush campaign's ability to re-create the postwar surge of national pride and confidence in Mr. Bush's abilities as a strong commander in chief could well prove crucial to his re-election, especially if he is vulnerable on issues such as the economy.
Already, the fighting in the gulf and its tragic aftermath have provided the prologue to the '92 race, scrambling the field of likely Democratic challengers and delaying the start of the contest. This week, when former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas becomes the first candidate to formally declare, it will mark the latest beginning to a presidential campaign in nearly a quarter-century. Mr. Tsongas admits he would not be running if other Democrats had been more willing to challenge Mr. Bush.
In the two months since Kuwait was liberated, public attitudes toward events in the Middle East have undergone a dramatic shift. Amid a worsening Kurdish refugee crisis, a recent Gallup Poll found that most Americans now believe that Mr. Bush ordered a cease-fire too soon and that the allies failed to achieve victory over Iraq because Saddam Hussein remains in power.
But Republicans remain outwardly confident that the war has set the stage for Mr. Bush's re-election and possible GOP gains in Senate and House races next year.
The Bush campaign is almost certain to make the war a centerpiece of the re-election effort, using it to anchor the president's foreign policy message and reinforce expected appeals to such politically potent values as patriotism, duty, family, national unity, peace, freedom and national strength.
As the defining moment of Mr. Bush's public career, the war "frames his presidency, which frames the campaign," said Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, who warns that voters are likely to resent any overt attempts to politicize the war.
Analysts in both parties agree that Mr. Bush will have to be careful not to rely too heavily on the issue as a political crutch.
"You can use it to close your case, not to make your case," said Larry McCarthy, a Republican media adviser. "If Bush can break even on every other measure of his presidency and the comparison with his opponent, and at the end wind up with [the war], then I think Bush wins handily."
For Bush strategists, the central challenge will be to rekindle at election time the gush of patriotic pride and upbeat emotions unleashed by the desert war. That task will fall most heavily on Mr. Bush's media advisers, who must find ways to translate the six-month crisis into 30- and 60-second ads.
Although those commercials are still many months away from completion, the video crafted for the April 16 military gala here offers the first tangible evidence of how that might be done. More than 120 hours of war footage were boiled down to nine minutes, and an original soundtrack, complete with country music, was added. Even Democrats were impressed.
"It's a masterpiece. It's obviously the first volley of the Bush campaign," said Raymond D. Strother, a Democratic media consultant, one of several experts who reviewed the video at The Sun's request.
"It's as if it was the first commercial of 1992. It's 'morning in Saudi Arabia,' " said Mr. McCarthy, referring to the famous "morning in America" campaign ads that helped re-elect Ronald Reagan in 1984.
The resemblance is no accident. The gulf video was produced by Phil Dusenberry, chairman of the New York advertising firm of Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborn, and organizer of the "Tuesday Team," the all-star cast of Madison Avenue admen that produced the 1984 Reagan ads.
Mr. Dusenberry said in an interview that he was assisted in making "the commercial" about the gulf war by Arnold J. Blum, his collaborator on a celebrated 18-minute Reagan film that was shown at the 1984 GOP convention.