WASHINGTON -- After weeks of building panic, Republican reaction to the popularity of the Democratic presidential ticket appears to have reached the ultimate in desperation: Now the drums are pounding for President Bush to give up the race.
Like Chinese water torture, the steady drip, drip, drip of new voices being added has increased almost daily since last week.
Two conservative newspaper columnists. Two prominent conservative activists. At least three editorials in newspapers circulating in conservative, Republican areas. All say the president should do his party and his country a favor by abdicating in favor of a potentially stronger candidate.
No one expects Mr. Bush to take this advice. And much of it comes from predictable sources, including activists Richard A. Viguerie and Burton Yale Pines, who have attacked the president for years for not hewing strictly to the conservative agenda.
Bush campaign adviser Charles Black dismissed such talk as coming from "inside-the-Beltway conservatives." He called it "a nothing deal."
To some degree, the talk simply represents retaliation from the conservative wing against the Bush regulars, who they believe spread the idea several weeks ago that Mr. Bush should drop their favorite, Vice President Dan Quayle.
"The more pertinent question is whether George Bush should withdraw from the race," retorted conservative commentator George F. Will in a column last week. A longtime Bush critic, he once referred to the president as a "lap dog."
But the fact that these comments are being aired seriously is symptomatic of the agony in which the Republican Party finds itself less than two weeks before its national convention.
The president's job approval rating has dropped to a new low of 29 percent, according to a Gallup Poll completed Sunday and released yesterday. No president in modern times has sunk so low and been re-elected.
Republicans see Mr. Bush continuing to trail far behind Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton -- by 25 percentage points in the Gallup survey -- with no sign of a breakthrough on the economy, which is the
most important issue of the campaign.
"This is not a conservative problem. It is a Republican problem, and it's a panic problem," said Donald J. Devine, a former Reagan administration official now working as a Republican political consultant. "The conservatives can afford to talk about it publicly because they don't owe their livelihoods to the Republican Party."
David Mason, a political scientist at the conservative Heritage Foundation, agreed that Mr. Bush's problem "is with voters at large. His unpopularity is approaching the levels of President Nixon at the height of Watergate, and there's no crisis. They're disappointed because he doesn't seem to understand that the economy is not in good shape."
Throughout his career, Mr. Bush has had problems with the right wing, which always suspected that his views on social issues, such as abortion and civil rights, were more moderate than it liked. He also had to fight off a conservative challenge in this year's primaries from columnist Patrick J. Buchanan.
The president has devoted much of his attention in recent months to trying to keep that conservative base in line by promoting "family values" and law-and-order themes.
But that base can't give Mr. Bush more than 30 percent of the vote, and he can't capture the other votes he needs without a new approach on the economy, Mr. Mason said.
"The president has clearly run out of ideas on how to deal with an economy that has left this nation more ravaged than at any time since the Great Depression," said the Herald in New Britain, Conn., which recommended Mr. Bush's withdrawal from the race in an editorial Friday.
Paul Gigot, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, argued in print yesterday that voters sense that Mr. Bush "is a spent president" who has "struggled for a year to find a rationale for a second term."
If the president were to step aside, Mr. Gigot said, the GOP convention would be transformed into a "raucous, born-again revival" that could pick a nominee "eager to debate the future, not just ratify the past."
On Sunday, the Orange County Register in California called on Mr. Bush to perform "the most supreme act of grace and selflessness" to give his party a chance to overcome the Clinton "insurgency."
The Sunday Republican-American of Waterbury, Conn., one of the president's home states, recommended that Mr. Bush withdraw from the race on the grounds that he "provides no direction or vision."