Washington -- AMONG politicians the "re-elect number" is the most interesting one in opinion polls. It measures the share of the electorate now "inclined to vote" for an incumbent against those inclined to support some unspecified opponent. It gives a candidate aly making a great show of motion on domestic issues, even to the point of publicly considering a tax cut. The new Washington Post-ABC News poll puts his re-elect number at 47 percent, compared to 37 percent inclined to vote for an unidentified "Democratic nominee."
Ordinarily, a 47 percent showing would be considered a warning to a candidate but not necessarily a cause for fear and trembling. It is when the re-elect numbers get down below 40 percent that there is good reason to push the panic button.
But George Bush has not been a political mortal measured by ordinary standards since he embarked on the war in the Persian Gulf a year ago. Immediately after the war his re-elect number stood at 68 percent. And even today his general approval rating remains at 65 percent, not as gaudy as the 90 percent he scored last March but still impressive.
So the first message in that 47 percent may be only what some astute politicians have understood all along -- that Bush's personal popularity alone would not make him invincible in 1992 if there were other factors in the mix. And the second, and more significant, message may be that those other factors are beginning to come into play.
Bush's standing has slipped not only because it was too high to be maintained, which it clearly was, but also because Democrats have been increasingly emboldened to criticize the president as the aura of the war has dissipated. Although they are generally little known, there are six announced Democratic candidates out there saying all sorts of negative things about George Bush. Some of it inevitably gets through when, for example, he is seen vetoing an extension of unemployment benefits while the bad economic news accumulates.
More important, perhaps, is simply the failure of Bush himself to take any initiative on domestic matters and particularly the economy. The Post-ABC poll found 70 percent of the people agreed "he spends too much of his time on foreign problems and not enough on problems in this country." Several surveys show concern about the economy so great that more than 60 percent of the people believe the country is "off on the wrong track"
rather than moving in the right direction.
The operative question now is whether these new poll figures do anything to change the political atmospherics. At the least, the notion of Bush's potential vulnerability should make it easier for Democrats to raise money and enlist volunteers. At the most, it might even draw some other candidates into the field. It would not be surprising if some of those who decided to play it cute and bypass 1992 and wait for 1996 -- the Gephardts and Gores and Bradleys and Mitchells and Rockefellers -- were not at least a little taken aback.
It would be a mistake to read too much into the new polling data. Bush is still held in high esteem personally and he is far ahead of all his potential rivals in head-to-head matchups. There is no Democratic candidate who has established himself as a challenger with the gravitas to be a serious threat to an incumbent president. And once there is a Democratic candidate, his negatives also will become a factor in public opinion.
But the numbers do suggest at least the possibility of vulnerability. Paul Tully, the political director of the Democratic National Committee, points to the example of then-Sen. Rudy Boschwitz of Minnesota, a Republican. Going into the 1990 campaign he led the man who eventually defeated him, a little known Democrat named Paul Wellstone, by staggering margins. But Boschwitz's re-elect number then was similar to Bush's today, indicating that he was something less than what horseplayers call a mortal lock for re-election.
The White House, which reveled in the polls last spring, scoffs at the new data. "Polls never mean anything," Marlin Fitzwater says. "The American people know George Bush has been a great president."
Perhaps they do, but right now only 47 percent of them are prepared to elect Bush to a second term.