WASHINGTON -- President Bush, who rode into office in 1988 on simple themes like "no new taxes" and "a kinder, gentler nation," is struggling to find a compelling message for voters alienated by the weak economy and suspicious of his practice of compromising policy positions.
Mr. Bush faces the incumbent's difficulty of running on a record that exposes his shortcomings and limitations with little of the personal charisma that might allow him to inspire confidence through sheer force of personality.
He attempted yesterday to recapture lost credibility on the no-new-taxes issue and give sharper definition to his campaign by threatening to veto a Democratic plan to raise taxes on the rich in order to provide tax relief to the middle class.
"I believe the American people have about had it with this tax-and-spend thinking," the president told a gathering of southern Republicans in Charleston, S.C. "We drew a line in the sand with the Persian Gulf and kept our word, and I'll draw another line in sand right here today. If the Democrats send me this nonsense they're talking about now, I'll send it right back."
But the tactic was seen by many Republican strategists as falling short of providing Mr. Bush with the clear, consistent, positive theme he needs to overcome the 47 percent no-confidence vote he drew in Tuesday's Republican primary in New Hampshire and decline in support reflected in national polls.
"It's absolutely imperative to have your own positive program so there's something for people to rally around," said Edwin W. Meese III, a former top political aide to President Ronald Reagan. "People don't rally behind a negative program."
Mr. Bush does have a seven-point program for reviving the economy,including a $5,000 tax credit for first-time homebuyers, several investment incentives and his long-sought cut in the capital gains tax on profits from the sale of assets.
His campaign moved yesterday to showcase that program for voters in the March 3 Georgia primary with television ads urging them to lobby Congress on its behalf.
But the Bush economic program is modest because the president heeded the advice of economists who warned that major adjustments would increase the deficit and do the economy more harm than good. The president and his advisers are desperately hoping that the economy will recover on its own by late spring.
The plan failed to capture the imagination of New Hampshire voters, many of whom said in exit polls that they favored Mr. Bush's challenger, columnist Patrick J. Buchanan, because he has "specific ideas."
The president also suffered in New Hampshire because Mr. Buchanan blasted him for dropping a $500 increase in the personal income tax exemption for children from his short-term economic package after touting it in his State of the Union address. The exemption was the most attractive form of direct aid Mr. Bush had offered to the middle class.
Coming after several weeks of Buchanan attacks on the president for breaking his 1988 no-new-taxes pledge last year, Mr. Bush's decision to delay the exemption for children until later this year added another count to the indictment that he has no set of guiding principles.
"The problem is that everything with George Bush is negotiable," said another Republican strategist with ties to Mr. Reagan. "You can't say, 'I care,' but wait six months. Ronald Reagan gave the people consistency; Bush is all over the map."
Many strategists both inside and outside the White House have suggested that President Bush must find a way to inspire voters with a long-term vision for the country.
Mr. Meese proposed a return to conservative Reagan basics with a much more dramatic series of tax cuts. Others have suggested something like a five-year plan for the economy that would address such issues as how to help defense workers left jobless by post-Cold War budget cuts and convert defense industry plants to peacetime purposes.
But Mr. Bush, more of a manager and negotiator than a visionary, has always had trouble articulating a grand view.
"You just can't get him to do it," said Eddie Mahe, a Republican political consultant. "It's asking the family pet to pull the plow."