IT'S DIFFICULT to chart those moments when the unthinkable becomes the possible, and the possible becomes the certain.
And so it's hard to pick one event that turned George Bush into the underdog of his own incumbency.
It wasn't just Bill Clinton's acceptance speech or the Magical Mystery Tour he took cross-country with Hillary, who appeared possessed by the spirit of Nancy Reagan as she watched Bill with that isn't-he-grand gaze. It wasn't the questions about ditching the still-unqualified Dan Quayle or Mr. Bush's ill-conceived pop-off "Shut up and sit down" when he was heckled by the families of soldiers lost in Southeast Asia.
"A journey of a thousand miles," Lao-tze said, inadvertently describing a presidential election, "must begin with a single step." One interesting step was a relatively quiet one, the announcement at the end of the Democratic Convention by Republican powermeisters that an opening night speech would be given by Ronald Reagan, and speculation that his theme would be America's place in the world community.
In theory it made perfect sense. The party is sent off on its mission by one of the most popular presidents of the 20th century speaking on its strong suit, foreign policy, and on its nominee, his one-time vice president. But theory would also hold that having Bill Clinton choose a Siamese-twin running mate and then jump on a bus with him to sit on hay bales across America was about as dumb and hokey as a strategy could be. Theory only holds until practice proves that it is just plain wrong.
In theory, having people see Ronald Reagan as an icon of the party sounds obvious. Republicans look at the familiar face and feel the warmth of better days, surer victories. But some Americans may see the beginning of the long, slow slide into the economic abyss that dominates this election.
Even if they still see the Reagan glow, Mr. Bush will surely seem wan in its remembered luster. Republicans may look at Reagan and see the aura of a get-tough foreign policy cast over both him and Bush. Few will care to recall Reagan's deposition in the Iran-Contra affair, when he seemed to know less about his own policies than the attorneys did.
But it has become a truism that Americans don't care much about foreign policy when their freezers and wallets are half-empty.
Perhaps there will even be a sense that Bush's much-vaunted foreign policy record is a chimera. Americans are not stupid; an attempt by the Republicans to claim the end of the cold war as their achievement will strain credulity, particularly for those who remember how uncertain Bush seemed in the first days of the Soviet coup last summer.
The gulf war will surely be invoked. There remain those who think it was a mistake from the beginning, and those who think the hostilities stopped too soon. Mr. Bush began going head-to-head with Saddam Hussein again this week, and contrasted "the experience, the seasoning, the guts" he has acquired in world affairs with that of his opponent.
But if he plans a Desert Storm II in the next 100 days, he had better make sure we understand why, and why now. This week at a truck stop in northeastern Pennsylvania, one driver said, "If something gets started, it'll just be for the election."
And a woman wrote to the local paper, "President Bush is now telling all the people who were backing Ross Perot that he hears us. Was his hearing aid turned off for the last four years?"
What's an incumbent to do if running on his record is a bust? One reason the questions about the vice president refuse to go away, other than the fact that he was a dreadful choice to begin with, is that the president looks used up these days, a man tired by the treadmill of the last four years.
Problem is, some of the electorate are tired of that treadmill too. The rumors about his health are constant, and so are the #F suggestions for cure-alls -- bring back Baker, fire Brady, go for the jugular. In theory some of these sound fine, but we already know that some of the old theories don't work. In practice, I'm doubtful of the benefits of Ronald Reagan, the ghost of conventions and policies past, the Grand Old Man who introduced us to hard times introducing us to George Bush this second time around.
Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.