Bush, pressed by Democrats, says he will bring up domestic agenda himself

September 02, 1991|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Sun Staff Correspondent

KENNEBUNKPORT, MAINE 4B — KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine -- Some Democrats may despair of getting the country to focus on George Bush's domestic record, but the Republican president says he is determined to do it himself.

The revolution in the Soviet Union has prompted Americans to put a premium on their leader's foreign policy expertise, but Mr. Bush said he plans to spend much of the next two months rebutting the Democrats' claim that that's all there is.

In what could be billed as the first campaign swing of his all-but-announced candidacy for re-election, the president will stump the country talking about his proposals on crime, energy, transportation, civil rights, the environment and education.

He is scheduled to begin with appearances at two schools in Lewiston, Maine, on his way back to Washington tomorrow after a monthlong vacation here.

First lady Barbara Bush and six Cabinet members are also scheduled to fan across the country this week bearing the president's message.

Mrs. Bush is scheduled to stop in Ellicott City Thursday, accompanied by Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, secretary of health and human services; James D. Watkins, secretary of energy; and William K. Reilly, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The central theme of this campaign was previewed by Mr. Bush before he left Washington four weeks ago: The only thing lacking with his domestic agenda is that the Democratic-led Congress won't enact it.

"Isn't that novel?" observed Democratic pollster Peter Hart. "That always seems to be every president's answer. But all his energy and all his travel will not paper over the lack of substance."

Despite Mr. Bush's good fortune at having another foreign policy event to unite the country behind him, the president knows that Democratic accusations that he neglects domestic issues are a potential problem if the economy is weak.

Bush campaign advisers expect the economy to be the most important issue next year, regardless of what else is going on in the world.

Although the White House says that the recession is over, the national unemployment average is expected to remain at 6.2 percent or higher next year, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That means that the "misery factor" could be high enough for many Americans to question whether their well-traveled president is more concerned about folks abroad than he is about them.

Recent polls suggest that although the president's personal popularity remains high, most Americans give him low grades for handling the economy.

Some would-be challengers to Mr. Bush were just beginning to )) tap into this discontent when Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev suddenly found himself under house arrest two weeks ago.

"It's an issue the Democrats could make something of if they repeated it enough and it went unanswered long enough," said Charles Black, a Republican consultant and top adviser to the embryonic Bush re-election campaign. "We can't afford for the economy to be the same or worse next year."

For the moment, the Democrats are still trying to recover from getting the "wind knocked out of them" by the Soviet upheaval, said William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

They still have no likely candidate of major political stature and no clear message. They appear to have stumbled again in suggesting last week that some of the "peace dividend" earned from the collapse of the Soviet Union be sent to the emerging republics as humanitarian relief.

"You've got to accommodate a lot of domestic interests that would like to see more money going somewhere," Mr. Bush countered, neatly turning the Democrats' best line back at them.

Even so, the president is reluctant to rely entirely on the Democrats' misfortune and missteps and is following through with great fanfare on his previously announced pledge to take them on directly.

Advisers John H. Sununu, Richard G. Darman and Roger Porter have been summoned to the vacation White House twice to discuss political tactics and plot strategy on legislation likely to be debated on Capitol Hill this fall.

Also, in an unusual gesture, the White House issued lengthy advance schedules for the president's domestic travel plans.

Mr. Bush has chosen to highlight his education package in particular because it is one of the few proposals that requires little federal money, is not steeped in controversy and fits well into themes as diverse as family values and international competitiveness.

Tomorrow morning in Lewiston, for example, he will begin his "back-to-school" tour by promoting preschools for children to "get them ready to learn," and by promoting continuing education for adults.

"It's a very productive issue for him," said Sheila Tate, a former campaign press secretary to Mr. Bush who also expects to be involved in the re-election effort.

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