ATLANTA -- President Bush's campaign strategists pulled another beauty here that makes you wonder what they understand about 1992 politics.
The president had been scheduled to attend Sunday services at the Peachtree Presbyterian Church, an uptown congregation with which a white-shoe Episcopalian like George Bush might seem most at home. But Bush's schedule was changed so he could attend services instead at the First Baptist Church of Atlanta, the largest Southern Baptist church in Georgia and thus a bastion of religious fundamentalism.
What made this subtle was that the change was made just as Bush's challenger, Patrick J. Buchanan, began to target the religious right with commercials assailing the president for funding the National Endowment for the Arts. The White House response was predictable: Send the candidate to church with the fundamentalists. Message: He cares.
The message, of course, is that the White House is being spooked by the Buchanan challenge in the Georgia primary and doesn't understand that Bush's problems won't be solved by media events. There is no evidence Bush is in any danger of losing here. Polls show him well ahead. But his local supporters ++ fear a 40 percent-plus showing by Buchanan that not only would embarrass Bush but encourage Buchanan to press on indefinitely.
And what the Bush campaign doesn't seem to understand is that the president is being embarrassed every day by running the kind of campaign that makes him appear so out of touch with the concerns of the electorate. Firing John Frohnmayer as director of the NEA, as Bush did last week, may please some people but it projects an image of a president who hops every time Pat Buchanan runs a new commercial.
Just how long Buchanan can keep this up without finally winning a primary is an open question. Capturing 37 percent in New Hampshire was impressive for a conservative commentator with no conventional political credentials. And 40 percent here, if he could achieve it, would be a further reflection of Bush's weakness. But Buchanan cannot win the nomination by losing every week. All he can do, with Bush's help, is continue to expose Bush's weakness.
The evidence of the folly of the course followed by the Bush campaign lies in the fact that his approval rating continues to plunge even as he campaigns for re-election. Bush supporters contend this is a result of the constant bashing he is taking from the Democrats and Buchanan. But there is some point at which Bush should start to get some positive results from his campaigning. And it is doubtful that switching churches is the answer.
The immediate concern for White House strategists are those religious fundamentalists that Buchanan has targeted by shifting his message even further to the right and concentrating on red flag social issues rather than the condition of the national economy. The ad on the NEA shows a message superimposed over film from a movie about homosexuals that the NEA helped finance. The president, says the announcer, used tax money for art "that has glorified homosexuality, exploited children and perverted the image of Jesus Christ." It is a commercial worthy of Jesse Helms on his best day.
Buchanan is running other ads attacking a provision of Bush's 1993 budget that would have required churches to report the names of large donors to the Internal Revenue Service. Bush scotched the rule when he learned of it, but Buchanan makes it evidence of a plan to make churches "branches of the IRS."
The Buchanan campaign also is planning ads accusing Bush of caving in by signing a civil rights bill that was a "quota bill" after promising not to do so. To the challenger, it is further proof that taxes are not the only issue on which conservatives cannot trust George Bush.
Pat Buchanan is not going to win the GOP nomination on such issues, just as he is not going to win it with 35 percent or 40 percent of the vote in winner-take-all primaries. But the Bush campaign is stumbling so badly in dealing with Buchanan it is quite possible he can lose the battle and win the final victory -- if that goal is cutting the legs from under the president.