WASHINGTON — Washington. -- A Bush strategist, evidently mystified, said wonderingly, ''He went up to New Hampshire and the bottom fell out.''
What's the mystery? President Bush, becoming strident, incoherent and preposterous, finished this New Hampshire campaign flexing Arnold Schwarzenegger's muscles, whining about negative campaigning and misrepresenting his last New Hampshire campaign.
''I never did take the pledge,'' Bush said plaintively, referring to the no-new-taxes pledge in New Hampshire in 1988.
There may be some pettifogging, hairsplitting, lawyerly sense in which Mr. Bush's claim is not technically false -- perhaps he did not sign a piece of paper -- but he repeatedly said he would not raise taxes and he won New Hampshire only because of his barrage of negative ads saying Bob Dole could not be trusted not to raise taxes.
Mr. Bush complaining about negative campaigning is a merriment. Never mind the Willie Horton-Pledge of Allegiance-Boston Harbor shelling of Michael Dukakis, or the branding of Mr. Dole as ''Senator Straddle'' regarding taxes.
But do remember the 1988 press release in which Mr. Bush's Iowa campaign suggested Elizabeth Dole was corrupt. (When a livid Senator Dole asked Mr. Bush if he authorized it, Vice President Straddle said maybe I did and maybe I didn't.)
Mr. Bush probably will beat Pat Buchanan, as President Ford beat Ronald Reagan in 1976 and President Carter beat Ted Kennedy in 1980. But by November, Mr. Bush may be as bedraggled as Mr. Carter was in 1980.
Lots of people were prepared to vote for President Carter, but few really wanted to -- few felt any passion. Mr. Reagan understood that he would win if he just passed the ''presidential threshold'' test -- if he was seen as a plausible alternative to the incumbent for whom few felt enthusiasm.
Hence Mr. Reagan's ads stressing his service as governor of the largest state; hence his mild demeanor in the debate. Today, both Paul Tsongas and Bill Clinton probably could pass the presidential threshold test with a majority of voters.
Mr. Bush has lost not only a substantial minority of Republicans, he has lost almost all of the minority that matters most, the conservatives who comprise the base for any Republican president. Politics is not merely numbers; intensity matters, too, and the intense Republicans are conservatives.
Some conservatives will grit their teeth and stick with President Bush because they dread having Mr. Buchanan defining conservatism.
But many more conservatives may soon believe it is better for their fighting faith to be in opposition than in power Mr. Bush's way -- in disarray that discredits conservatism. And they are not apt to be brought back into the fold by violent fear of Mr. Tsongas, or perhaps even of Mr. Clinton.
The day Harry Truman became president, most Americans did not know what he looked like. The day Paul Tsongas won a primary (in a state with fewer people than, say, metropolitan Charlotte, N.C.), most Americans knew his pursed look and the tang of his personality.
Like another Massachusetts politician, he may at first seem to have been weaned on a pickle, yet like the sainted Coolidge, he has an arid wit and a politician's priceless knack (Eisenhower and Reagan had it, too) for being underestimated by rivals.
But no longer. And those who prosper, as Mr. Tsongas has, by the acceleration of events that modern media make possible, also can perish by the acceleration.
Mr. Clinton finished a strong enough second to say jauntily, ''See you down South, Paul.'' He can still hope -- absent any new embarrassment -- to be the first sitting governor elected president since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. Consider some numbers cited by John Pitney of Claremont College:
Since the Democrats' first convention in 1832, no Democrat has won the White House without carrying a majority of Southern states. Non-Southern Democratic nominees have lost 62 percent the time; Southern Democrats have won 83 percent. Franklin Roosevelt is the only non-Southern Democratic nominee ever to win more than 51 percent of the popular vote nationally.
Mr. Clinton can take his ''electability'' argument into the Southern states with their money-eating media markets and millions of black voters. Democrats speak of a ''43 percent strategy,'' 43 being the percentage of the white vote they need in November if their candidate also gets 90 percent of the black vote and two-thirds of the Hispanic vote.
Mr. Clinton has the record and rhetorical cadences to appeal to blacks and he can claim to match Mr. Tsongas' ability to win back moderate-to-conservative Democrats who have been voting Republican.
Finally, the self-caressing Mario Cuomo may at last have gone too far while going nowhere. Mr. Cuomo, yesterday's man who has never quite had a today, went to Harvard, in New Hampshire's television range, to encourage the write-in campaign on his behalf, all the while saying, ''I wouldn't presume to interfere with the good people of New Hampshire.''
He got three percent. He didn't interfere.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.