Kinder, gentler Bush to run harder, fight dirtier

February 20, 1992|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's response to what he called the message of "dissatisfaction" from New Hampshire voters will be to run harder and fight dirtier, White House and campaign officials said.

"It's a new ballgame and we're coming out strong," the president told reporters in Knoxville, Tenn., on what is expected to be almost a non-stop campaigning blitz until Super Tuesday, March 10. "I'll still be kind, but now I'm debating how gentle I'll be."

Mr. Bush plans no change in policy positions, aides say, but he will be working to "sharpen" his re-election appeal to voters, largely by drawing distinctions between himself and his challengers -- particularly GOP opponent Patrick J. Buchanan.

The president will also continue to take aim at the leadership in Congress with a greater emphasis on the Democrat's tax package, Bush advisers said. They claim that the plan would finance a temporary middle-class tax cut with a permanent tax increase that could affect the same people.

But theirs is mostly a "stay the course" approach that some strategists say could fall short if New Hampshire proves to have been more of an indicator of general voter sentiment than the president's team is willing to admit.

In the wake of Mr. Bush's embarrassing 53 percent-to-37 percent finish over political novice Mr. Buchanan in Tuesday's primary, "there was a lot of talking, scrambling, finger-pointing and relief that it wasn't worse" at the White House yesterday, one senior administration official said.

Some advisers had feared the president might actually lose the critical first primary of his re-election campaign. Mr. Bush admitted yesterday that he had been "tense" when early exit polls showed that he and Mr. Buchanan were running neck-and-neck.

Even before the tally in New Hampshire, the White House was acknowledging that Mr. Bush had not spent enough time campaigning there.

Thus a schedule was drawn for the 13 states, including Maryland, with primaries between March 3 and March 10, a campaign itinerary that will keep the presidential party on the road so long that White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater advised reporters Tuesday: "If you haven't washed your socks, do it now."

Some Bush campaign official were saying yesterday that the only new tactic after New Hampshire would be to "run like hell."

But others said that Mr. Bush had failed to present voters in that economically depressed state with a convincing reason for choosing him again.

"People want to know you understand what they're going through," a veteran campaigner said, "and they want to hear, 'What are you going to do for me?' "

Instead, Mr. Bush's advisers succeeded in making him look even more out of touch by sending him to buy socks at a J. C. Penney's in Frederick, Md., in November and having him try his hand at a grocery store scanner in Florida that seemed brand new to him.

Exit polls in New Hampshire indicated that Mr. Buchanan was rated almost three times higher than the president as a candidate of compassion and as the one with specific ideas.

In Tennessee yesterday, Mr. Bush attempted to address those concerns by promoting his short-term economic package of tax credits and incentives as "seven common-sense steps to spur investment and create jobs."

He also derided the Democratic alternative being considered in Congress as a plan to provide "25 cents a day, literally, in middle-income tax relief in exchange for cuts in Medicare, student loans, farm payments, and, true to form, a large permanent tax increase."

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