MANCHESTER, N.H. -- The strategy for defeating George Bush next year is so simple that a child could conceive it, a reporter could grasp it, and the Democratic presidential candidates could agree to it:
The worse things get in America, the better off the Democrats are. For the Democratic Party, despair is its only hope.
When five of the six announced candidates for the Democratic nomination gave speeches here over the weekend, the band played "Happy Days Are Here Again."
But it should have played "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?"
Because the Democrats were unrelenting in their message of doom and gloom:
"Economic despair, thy name is George Bush," said Paul E. Tsongas, former senator of Massachusetts.
"The middle class is going downhill, and poverty is exploding," Bill Clinton, governor of Arkansas, said. "The American dream is dying on the vine."
"People are beginning to lose hope," said Bob Kerrey, senator from Nebraska. "It is time in 1992 to say to George Bush what Mickey Rooney said to all seven of his wives: 'George, we can't keep you around much longer.' "
"You can't take care of the rights and privileges of everyone around the world and not take care of the people in this country," L. Douglas Wilder, governor of Virginia, said. "George Bush not only can be beaten, he will be beaten!"
"The Communist Party has been disbanded, and they are wondering what to call the new party," said Tom Harkin, senator from Iowa. "Well, it was a discredited political party that benefited the narrow few and bankrupted the nation. I have a suggestion: They might call themselves Republicans!"
Catch the drift? Get the message? Well, if you don't, the Democrats will make it even easier for you. Because they learned a valuable lesson four years ago, and they learned it from real pros: the Republicans.
They learned that it is not enough to make the voters dislike your opponent, you must also make the voters fear your opponent.
It was not enough for George Bush to portray Michael S. Dukakis as a cold, uncaring man who did not like to say the Pledge of Allegiance. George Bush also had to portray Michael Dukakis as a dangerous man who, if elected to the presidency, would let 10,000 Willie Hortons out of jail to rape, loot and pillage among us.
Call it unpleasant. Call it dirty politics. But also call it what it was: Successful.
And this time, therefore, the Democrats are bursting out of the gate romping and stomping, slashing and burning. They feel it is the only chance they have.
So not even the president's boyhood home, the place that he loves like no other, the home he has spent every summer of his life in except for when he went off to fight World War II, was ## immune from Democratic attack.
"The President is going to Kennebunkport to see the damage to his house," Tom Harkin sneered. "[But] it is time for him to come to New Hampshire and Florida and California and other parts of the country and see the damage his policies are doing in America!"
Will anything be below the belt this election? No. There is no such region of anatomy on the body politic.
"If you believe George Bush and Roger Ailes will make a kinder, gentler nation, look at what they did to Anita Hill!" Harkin went on. "[Bush] represents debt, defeat and depression. Under him the rich got richer, the poor got poorer and the middle class paid for both."
By the end of all the speeches, one had to conclude that if the Democrats are correct about Bush, the voters might not only have to defeat him, but deport him.
"He divides us by race," Paul Tsongas said. "In 1988, George Bush used the Willie Horton ad. And a man who divides us by race should not be president of the United States!"
"Republicans have watered the tree of racism for 24 years, and now it has grown up and dropped a nut in Louisiana in David Duke!" Bob Kerrey said, referring to the former Klansman and Republican nominee for governor in that state.
Since the race for a party nomination is not really a national race, but a series of local races, the economic gloom in New Hampshire, the first state to hold a primary next year, is especially fertile ground for the Democrats.
"Every five minutes a person signs up for welfare benefits in Manchester," Harkin said. "Every 13 minutes someone runs out of unemployment benefits. Every 90 minutes someone declares bankruptcy, 18 percent of the homes are vacant, 13 banks have failed."
George Bush won a crucial victory in New Hampshire in 1988 because New Hampshire was doing better than the rest of the nation. Today, it is doing worse. And the Democrats hope that New Hampshireites and citizens elsewhere will adopt a new view of the nation.
L Not the Reagan-Bush view in 1980: "It's Morning in America."
But the new Democratic view of America under the Republicans: "I've Fallen, and I Can't Get Up."
Even though the campaign is beginning very late this time -- there are only 364 days left until Election Day -- the Democrats have already gotten their act together.
At a debate held at a local TV station here Friday night, three of the candidates even managed a little vaudeville routine:
"George Bush was made president in New Hampshire . . ." Tsongas said.
"And hasn't been back since . . ." Wilder said.
"Except to play golf here!" Clinton said.
But just in case you thought the Democrats want to inject a little humor into the race, forget it. Because Clinton hung a label on George Bush that haunts a whole generation of Americans who lived through the Great Depression.
"We are following a stupid economic policy that will drive this country to destruction," he said. "George Bush is the Herbert Hoover of the 1990s."
How bad will this get? How far will the Democratic candidates take this?
Well, they must scare us enough for us to make a Democrat president of the United States.
In other words, we're going to have to be pretty scared.