Exeter, N.H. -- PRESIDENT BUSH'S political problem is simple: He's stuck for an answer. And because he lacks anything that might be seen as a solution to economic distress, the president is following a political course that totally misjudges the concerns of the electorate. The voters are far less interested in who's gets elected than in who has an answer that might offer a way out.
Campaigning here for the Feb. 18 Republican presidential primary, Bush's message was conventional. Yes, he "cares" about the suffering of those who are out of work. Yes, he will offer a plan for the future in his State of the Union address two weeks from now. No, things are not as bad as his critics suggest. Indeed, he told an ersatz town meeting here, "There are some fundamentals that are pretty darn good."
His whole tone was defensive. He is tired of hearing the "outrageous allegations" of political opponents. He isn't going to propose some "fancy quick fix." His rivals are "these people who just discovered New Hampshire on the road map."
But Bush is confronting three hard perceptions that cannot be talked away. One is the consensus -- now shared by 75 percent of voters -- that the economic situation is more serious than the administration has been willing to concede until recently, and then only grudgingly. The second is that Bush has spent too much time on foreign policy. The third is that Bush has neither the interest nor expertise to deal with the harsh economic realities.
Here in New Hampshire, the problems for Bush are exacerbated by special factors. The economic distress here is probably the most serious in a generation and perhaps two. New Hampshire has been insulated from many of the lows of the cycle in the past, but in the last year has seen a loss of 55,000 jobs, skyrocketing welfare demands and bankruptcy rates and collapsing banks.
Bush also is hurt by the fact the economic concern has crystallized just as commentator Patrick J. Buchanan decided to challenge him in the primary with a campaign designed to remind voters here that he broke the pledge he made in the 1988 primary not to raise taxes. And, finally but not incidentally, the president is being pounded daily by most of the five Democratic candidates for his performance on the economy and his failure to confront such problems as the inadequacies in the health care system.
Just how seriously Bush is being threatened here is not entirely clear. A new opinion poll shows him with just 46 percent of the primary vote to 30 percent for Buchanan, a lead only half of that he enjoyed a month ago. Some Republican leaders here now believe there is at least a long shot possibility Buchanan could upset Bush Feb. 18 and a stronger chance that Buchanan will fall short but still poll a large enough vote to embarrass the sitting president.
"Buchanan could be another McCarthy," a prominent Bush supporter said in a reference to the 1968 Democratic primary in which then Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy won 42 percent of the vote to 49 percent for then President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Bush himself is reacting to Buchanan. That message was clear in his decision to spend 12 hours campaigning here the other day. It was even more obvious in Bush's spooked response to Buchanan's stunt of publicly signing a pledge not to raise taxes and demanding that the president do the same.
Bush couldn't let it lie there. Instead, he tried to deflect it. His voice heavy with scorn, Bush said there was "talk about pledges and all that" when what he needed was a pledge from the voters to elect more Republicans to Congress so he could push through his "growth package" for the economy. The incident reinforced the view among political professionals that the president is still a campaigner who can be thrown off stride by a tough opponent.
The central problem for Bush, however, is that he cannot hope to deal with these issues with politics as usual. The trip here was essentially a series of media events designed to show, as he said repeatedly, that he "cares" and to highlight some of the economic success stories in the state.
At the so-called town meeting here he made brief remarks promising great things later, then answered five questions from an invited audience in the Exeter Town Hall. It was, in short, a setting for a television commercial that would be a "good visual" even if it produced no answers to the economic fear here.