WASHINGTON -- It is axiomatic in American politics that, barring a direct threat to national security, foreign policy issues are not likely to be decisive in presidential elections. So chances are that the current focus on the turmoil in the Balkans will be long since forgotten by Election Day, Nov. 3.
But even an issue that may vanish from the television screens, and thus from the public consciousness, within a month or so can play a part in forming perceptions of the presidential candidates.
And in this case, President Bush is clearly getting the worst of it as he gropes for a proper response.
This defies the conventional wisdom that voters rally around an incumbent president in a time of international crisis.
That happened two years ago when Iraq invaded Kuwait and the president drew his line in the sand.
But the situation in what used to be Yugoslavia is so much more complex and vexing that it is impossible for Bush to adopt a heroic stance and simply command a national consensus for action.
Meanwhile, Democratic nominee Bill Clinton is finding it possible to do some subtle positioning as at least a credible figure in the debate.
He has achieved that by combining support for President Bush's policy with some pressure on the president to do more faster, pressure not unlike that Bush is getting from such leading Republicans as Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole and Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana.
When White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater suggested last week that the Democratic candidate was being reckless with his comments on the situation in Bosnia, he found himself obliged to back off when it became apparent Clinton's position was not essentially different from that of many Republicans and the State Department.
Clinton's handling of the Bosnia issue is not going to wipe away the advantage of credentials any incumbent enjoys against a governor of Arkansas, but it has minimized that advantage.
One reason clearly is that the situation in Yugoslavia does not represent any direct threat to Americans.
In fact, the absence of such threats from any corner of the globe puts the president at a pronounced disadvantage in making the case that the presidency is too sensitive a job to be entrusted to a challenger.
That was apparent the other day, for example, when Bush tried out a version of the "red phone" ploy that Walter F. Mondale used so effectively against Gary Hart in the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984.
Mondale ran a commercial showing a ringing red telephone, making the point that the country needed a sure-footed and experienced leader in dealing with the threat from the Soviet Union.
Because Hart was behaving erratically in other ways at the time, the commercial paid handsome dividends and was credited with putting Mondale over the top in a critical primary in Illinois.
The president tried his version the other day when he referred to the need for a cool head when a crisis phone call comes in the middle of the night and boasted about the "guts" it took to deal with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The only problem with that tactic these days is that the Soviet Union and the threat it represented are long gone.
The Serbs and Hussein don't qualify for similar gravity.
,.5l Bush has tried to handle the situation in Bosnia prudently while trying to maximize the political advantage from being the man in charge by making his case to the press.
Despite his assurance at his news conference yesterday that "this is not a political matter; this is a matter of humanitarian concern," in fact, it is both.
In the long run, the foreign policy card is a trump for any incumbent president facing a challenger with less experience in the supposedly arcane world of international affairs.
But voters are too preoccupied with the economy and other domestic problems to give the credential its traditional value.
Opinion polls show foreign policy issues far down the list of the concerns of the electorate.
The television images of the horror in Bosnia are compelling, but the civil war there is too remote to decide a presidential election in this country.