WASHINGTON -- With neither a strong economy nor a foreign policy triumph to assure him broad support, President Bush is returning from Europe tomorrow to concentrate on shoring up his conservative base.
If no news is good news, his five-day trip highlighted by the Economic Summit in Munich was a success. Unlike other foreign forays this year, Mr. Bush suffered no embarrassments and deftly silenced a protester who disrupted his otherwise uneventful press conference yesterday.
But because of his failure to achieve measurable progress on a world trade agreement, the trip yielded Mr. Bush little he can use to appeal to voters grown hostile in their economic miseries.
His roughly one-third share of an electorate being wooed by Democrat Bill Clinton and independent Ross Perot is even expected to decline a bit as Mr. Clinton's nomination is celebrated at the Democratic National Convention next week.
Thus, as in the 1988 race, Mr. Bush and his surrogates are moving into an all-out attack phase of their campaign in order to draw a contrast between the incumbent and his challengers, who will be painted as liberal and dangerous.
"We've got to try to solidify our base over the summer," said Charles Black, senior adviser to the Bush campaign. "Whether it turns out to be a two-way race or a three-way race, we've got to have the conservatives, and we've lost some of them."
Advisers say the president will devote himself in the weeks before his own Republican convention next month to hammering away at conservative social themes they hope will lure his most ** likely supporters back into the fold. Those themes will include celebrating the traditional two-parent family, school choice, tougher anti-crime measures and welfare reform, as well as opposition to abortion, gay rights and higher taxes.
A preview of this veer to the right was evident in the president's pre-summit jaunt on the Fourth of July to a stock car race in Daytona, Fla., and a flag-waving celebration in a nearly all-white, working-class town in North Carolina.
"It's the same essential elements of the plan we've always had, we just need to do a better job of executing it," said James Lake, deputy manager of the Bush-Quayle campaign. "There's no magic in this business, it's hard work."
But the campaign plan had depended heavily on the expectation that a solid economic recovery would be well on its way. Instead, the rebound has been what Mr. Bush calls "anemic," and the unemployment rate hit a painful 7.8 percent last week, the highest since 1984.
Promoting the benefits from increased foreign trade has been recommended to the Bush team as a partial remedy for the president's economic woes. And the president pushed hard in Munich to win a breakthrough in a stalemate with the French over farm subsidies.
He wanted to be able to trumpet the imminent conclusion of a global trade pact he says would increase investment and jobs worldwide. Secretary of State James A. Baker III, the president's close friend and political adviser, told reporters such a breakthrough was possible.
But French President Francois Mitterrand has political problems of his own and couldn't accept a reduction in the subsidies paid to French farmers until perhaps after a critical national referendum on joining the European economic union this fall.
So, Mr. Bush was forced to accept a statement of intention from his summit partners that the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) will be completed by the end of the year. "It's natural that as we get close to the end, the going gets tougher," the president said at his news conference. "But I will persevere because the benefits of success are tremendous."
Today the president is in Helsinki, Finland, sorting out the U.S. role in resolving European conflicts, such as the bloody strife in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
He is scheduled to discuss his efforts during an unusual interview on the "McNeil-Lehrer News Hour" program to be aired tomorrow night on public television. This is small stuff, though, compared with the campaign Mr. Bush waged in forming the coalition that thwarted the Iraqi takeover of Kuwait last year and is not expected to bring him any measure of his former glory.
"The only thing that's going to get Bush re-elected is bad luck for Perot and Clinton," said Burton Yale Pines, a conservative critic of Mr. Bush who recently took over as chairman of the National Center for Public Policy Research. "They have to self-destruct."
But Mr. Pines agreed that the president might find the path to victory if he makes peace with Patrick J. Buchanan, the conservative commentator who challenged him in the Republican primaries, and pulls back into the fold the urban ethnic and Southern white working-class voters dubbed Reagan Democrats.
Polls taken during the primaries showed that defectors from the president ranged across the ideological spectrum. But conservatives were particularly enraged when Mr. Bush broke his pledge of "no new taxes."
Much of the president's "family values" agenda is focused directly at that group, notably the school choice program, which would allow federal money to be used for private and parochial schools.
Mr. Bush may also be the unintended beneficiary of a move under way in Congress to win enactment of legislation that would mandate abortion rights, Mr. Pines said. The president would veto such a measure with great fanfare, energizing his backers in the anti-abortion movement.