Washington -- IN POLITICS as in football, the prudent strategy when fortunes begin to turn is to go back to basics. That's what happened in both major parties the other day when President Bush spoke to the Republican faithful at a fund-raiser in New York and six Democratic challengers went to Detroit to pitch for support at the annual AFL-CIO convention.
Bush was back on the kick that had served him so well in 1988 -- castigating"liberals" for obstructing national progress, this time targeting the Democratic-controlled Congress in the same way he had fastened the dread "L word" on Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis three years ago.
Meanwhile in Detroit, the six Democratic candidates were wooing organized labor, seemingly unconcerned about warnings inside and outside their party that one of the major problems for vote-seeking Democrats generally is that they continue to be perceived as members of the party of special interests.
One obvious catalyst in both cases is the depressed state of the economy. Bush, having yet to come up with any coherent strategy for rescuing it, is obliged to fall back on the old conservative Republican formula of liberal-bashing. And the Democratic challengers, seeing the economic plight as their ticket to reclaiming the votes of working stiffs known as Reagan-Bush Democrats, are throwing to the winds recent caution concerning clear association with organized labor.
For both Bush and the Democratic hopefuls, further motivation could be found in the Los Angeles Poll just out. For the first time, voters surveyed said they preferred an unnamed "Democratic candidate" for 1992 over the incumbent president, by 43 percent to 41. This result marked a dramatic turnaround from the findings a month ago by the same poll, which then had Bush leading the phantom Democrat by 55 percent to 37.
The survey was taken just before and after the special Senate election in Pennsylvania in which appointed Democratic Sen. Harris Wofford, in his first race for public office, pinned his Republican opponent, former Gov. and U.S. Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh, tightly to a Bush administration in Washington that he said didn't care a rap about middle-class working stiffs.
Bush, another of those politicians who says he doesn't pay attention to polls while watching them like your pre-schooler watches the Saturday morning cartoons on television, is clearly showing the effects of their declining readings on him. He may not yet be in "Panic City" as one of his prime oratorical targets, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, put it, but the signs of increasing nervousness in the wake of the Pennsylvania result are quite apparent in his return to liberal-bashing.
As for the six Democrats who flocked to Detroit, there is less ground for their glee in the poll findings on that unnamed Democratic challenger than they would like. It is easy for voters to say they prefer a nameless alternative to a president suffering from economic doldrums. Once a name and face is placed on that option, two things happen.
First, the candidate himself is seen with his flaws as well as his attractions. Second, he becomes a target for that incumbent president and his political operatives to portray in the most xTC negative terms they can concoct. Both points were illustrated by Michael Dukakis in 1988. Before voters got to know him, he led Bush in the polls by as much as 17 percent. The more they knew him -- with a major unhelping hand from the Bush campaign's Willie Horton and pledge-of-allegiance muggings of him -- the more the gap closed, until he was a political basket case.
Another statistic in the Los Angeles Times poll was illustrative. Paired against the Democrat who wasn't there in Detroit, Gov. Mario Cuomo, Bush ran ahead handily, 58 percent to 37. And there is no reason to expect that any of the six declared Democrats who addressed the AFL-CIO convention would have fared any better in a matchup with the president.
More worrisome to Bush may be the poll's finding that only 34 percent of voters surveyed said they were "satisfied with the way things are going" in the country, the lowest number on that question since the poll started asking it in 1986. In any event, the behavior of Bush and of his Democratic challengers is increasing the sense that the 1992 presidential campaign will be held after all, and that Bush cannot count on a coronation.