WASHINGTON -- A noticeably relieved and relaxed George Bush publicly put the insurgent Republican challenge to his re-election behind him yesterday and returned to the business of being president.
At a morning-after press conference following his eight Super Tuesday victories over conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, Mr. Bush said he was confident the challenger had attracted mostly protest voters unhappy about the economy who will "come home to roost" in the November election even if a recovery is not under way.
He stopped short of urging Mr. Buchanan to give up the quest that has yielded the challenger no victories in 15 states but has terrorized the Bush campaign with attacks that have not only given voice to Republican unhappiness but provided fodder for the Democratic challenge to come.
But the president was clearly determined to sound a concluding bell on the two-month round of competition between himself and Mr. Buchanan.
"I guess anybody that runs for office would rather have no opposition," he said. "I mean, you don't have to be a . . . rocket scientist to gather that one in."
After a dizzying spin of campaigning throughout the South, Mr. Bush is following the advice of aides who say he should take advantage of his success so far and the more leisurely pace of primaries ahead to get back on the job and put himself above the dwindling pack of challengers.
The president's job approval rating dropped steadily during his absence from the White House, and his desire to put in at least one appearance in every primary state gave his campaign a panicked look.
Now that Mr. Buchanan is no longer viewed by the White House as any threat to the president's renomination, Mr. Bush's advisers believe he must emphasize his strengths in greater experience and foreign policy expertise to contrast himself with the soon-to-be-named Democratic contender.
"I recognize I have responsibilities that no other candidate has for leading this country and for being the president," Mr. Bush said. "I think the way the vote is working out, the overwhelming endorsement in terms of these delegates and everything, I think you'll be seeing me here [in Washington] a lot."
He waded patiently through more than a half-hour of no-holds-barred questioning for the only the second time this year.
And he went about the routine tasks of his job, such as the swearing-in of new Transportation Secretary Andrew Card and the appointment of a new administrator for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration with gusto.
Foreign policy issues were also on his lips for the first time since Mr. Buchanan launched his "America First" crusade.
"As we renew ourselves at home, we simply cannot relinquish our leadership abroad," he argued in an opening statement. "Americans must not heed the lone trumpets of retreat."
The Bush campaign is worried about the 30 percent or so of the vote that Mr. Buchanan has been collecting in each primary, but the president says he's sure he will win those voters back.
"I'm trying to conduct myself in such a way as to say, 'Look, I understand your feeling on this issue or that, but we need your support and we want you,' " he said.
Part of that effort will be a renewed drive to come to terms with Congress on an economic growth plan, although Mr. Bush flatly ruled out yesterday a tax increase on millionaires that the Democratic lawmakers consider a key part of their "fairness" package.
He refrained, however, from the usual partisan attacks that have characterized his rhetoric on the campaign trail.