WASHINGTON -- Barely eight months after the Persian Gulf war, and more than one year before the 1992 election, economic fears have begun clouding President Bush's re-election prospects.
According to two national polls released this week, fewer than half the nation's voters are now prepared to give Mr. Bush another term, an indicator of political vulnerability.
When asked whether, after four years of George Bush, the nation needs a president who can take the country in a new direction, a majority answered yes, according to the latest ABC News-Washington Post poll.
"It's pretty scary," said one Bush re-election adviser, while adding that the latest findings came as no surprise to the president's political strategists.
The surveys coincide with the unofficial opening of the 1992 presidential campaign. Six Democrats have announced their candidacies and, amid increasing evidence that Mr. Bush may be beatable, New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo has started hinting that he, too, may run.
Experienced politicians said the latest polls should not be given a great deal of importance, since few voters are paying any attention yet to presidential politics.
"The polls before that said Bush was invincible were not politically sound," said John P. Sears, a veteran Republican campaign adviser. "These things can't be taken that seriously, either."
Mr. Bush retains an unusually high level of personal popularity and is still an early favorite to win re-election, particularly with the Democratic opposition in disarray and its presidential contenders largely unknown to the public. The president will begin raising money for his re-election campaign next week at gala dinners in his adopted home state of Texas, although he is expected to wait until next year to announce his candidacy formally.
Republican and Democratic politicians agree that the greatest threat to his re-election is a continuing, broad-based pessimism about the direction in which the country appears headed. These deeply felt concerns, tied mainly to the health of the economy, have the potential to outweigh the political benefits to Mr. Bush ,, of favorable events overseas, including the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that when you have a sluggish economy, people are going to be concerned," said Jack Albertine, an economist with ties to both the White House and Senate Democrats who noted that peacetime elections are usually decided by "pocketbook" issues.
Polls indicate that most Americans -- a majority of more than 60 percent, in most public and private surveys -- believe that things have gotten off on the wrong track in the country. A plurality believes that a Democratic president would do a better job of managing the economy than Mr. Bush, according to the latest CBS-New York Times poll.
"If the 'wrong-track' numbers continue in the 55-60 percent range, then history would suggest that, despite Mr. Bush's considerable advantages, he'll end up with a very, very close election," said Bill McInturff, a Republican consultant who briefed officials of the Republican National Committee on the results of a recently completed voter survey conducted by his firm.
Worries about joblessness and a slack economy aren't the only reason Americans are disenchanted with the state of affairs in the country, he added. Outrage over recent political scandals in Congress and concern about issues such as crime are also contributing to the electorate's sour mood, Mr. McInturff said.
Publicly, Mr. Bush's official spokesman and his re-election planners professed to find little cause for alarm yesterday in the latest polls.
"Polls go up, polls go down. The American people know that George Bush is doing a great job," Marlin Fitzwater, the White House press secretary, told reporters.
"The bad news is that the continued recession is a drag on the president's popularity, but we always knew that would happen," said Charles Black, a senior member of the team of Bush political advisers that meets regularly at the White House.
Mr. Black noted that the latest polls test Mr. Bush's popularity against a "generic Democrat," rather than a specific opponent, and remarked that the Democrats "can't nominate someone without any negatives."
The president's "re-elect" figure -- the percentage of those who say they would vote for him over the Democratic nominee -- has fallen roughly 20 percentage points from the stratospheric levels recorded in the aftermath of the gulf war in March. Mr. Bush would still defeat a hypothetical opponent by at least 10 points if the election were held today, polls show.
With the economy seemingly stuck between recession and recovery, Mr. Bush and his advisers have been considering proposals to stimulate growth and restore consumer confidence.
But the administration faces a difficult task in fashioning an effective proposal that will both satisfy the financial markets and gain approval in the Democratic-controlled Congress.
Despite evidence that a weak economic recovery is under way, economists say there is a chance that the nation could slip back into a recession between now and the election.
Presidential campaign veterans say that unless a turnaround is clearly in progress by next spring, Mr. Bush's re-election could be in jeopardy.