HOUSTON -- The cliche du jour here is that President Bush's acceptance speech tonight will be "the most important speech of his life." Like most cliches, it is true.
Entering the final day of the convention, Mr. Bush is a candidate still clearly on the defensive and a candidate just as clearly lacking a coherent rationale for a second term. At the optimum, that is the vacuum the president might hope to fill before the largest television audience he has commanded or is likely to command in this campaign.
At a rock-bottom minimum, Mr. Bush needs to persuade those tens of millions watching that he is not the failure that, the opinion polls show, they now believe him to be. Any politician with an approval rating hanging around 30 percent has a lot of room to improve. Mr. Bush must demonstrate that he has a grasp of national concerns.
But the problem for Mr. Bush tonight is that expectations for his speech have reached such bizarre proportions they are almost impossible to meet. All week the president's supporters have been telling skeptical reporters to "just wait" until they hear the acceptance speech.
Just what Mr. Bush might be expected to do is far from clear. But there has been no paucity of suggestions for bold strokes that would rescue his campaign overnight:
* Item: Some Republicans of the Jack Kemp school have been urging him to use the speech to announce a tax reduction as the solution to the nation's economic malaise. The trouble with that idea is that it also would require an accompanying reduction in spending for entitlements, but giving castor oil to your largest-ever audience doesn't make sound political sense.
* Item: Other Republican strategists have argued in the convention corridors that Mr. Bush should demonstrate his commitment to change by announcing a dramatic shake-up in his Cabinet, not just musing in a television interview about what he might do in his second term. But that, of course, would be an admission of both poor performance and political panic.
* Item: The latest brainstorm has been for Mr. Bush to announce that James A. Baker III, the Superman of his inner circle, will take over the responsibility for the economy from this point forward. That, too, smacks of panic and raises the obvious question about why, if it is such a great idea, Mr. Bush didn't do it long ago.
* Item: Finally, there are a few political dreamers who believe Mr. Bush might beguile his audience by confessing the error of his ways and, in effect, throwing himself on the mercy of the electorate. Not bloody likely with George Bush.
All these ideas for quick fixes ignore an underlying truth about Mr. Bush's political predicament. He did not reach this low level in the opinion polls overnight, so it would be unrealistic to expect an overnight resurrection.
Mr. Bush's fall in the polls has been a product of a confluence of two streams of thought in the electorate. The first has been the crystallization over the last nine or 10 months of the recognition that the problems in the economy are serious and fundamental. The second has been the recognition that the president has no solutions to those problems.
The result has been the single most terrifying statistic for the Republicans: the finding of opinion polls that 75 to 80 percent of the voters believe the country is "off on the wrong track" rather than "heading in the right direction." Poll-takers have decades of experience with responses to that standard question, and that experience tells them results like these are extremely bad news for incumbents.
The notion of instant salvation also is undermined by the picture the president has projected of himself as an elitist out of touch with voters' concerns and, more to the point, lacking what Mr. Bush himself derisively calls "the vision thing" that would promise a solution. It has already been 10 months since the president acknowledged that the economy was indeed sour and promised a program to solve it in his State of the Union address in January.
But when that speech was delivered, it proved to be a disappointing restatement of proposals already on the table for months or years and found wanting. The 10 million unemployed are not likely to be consoled by another demand for a reduction in capital gains taxes.
Although Mr. Bush's speech tonight will be aimed primarily at that huge television audience, it also can be especially important in what it says to his fellow Republicans and, in particular, the mainstream moderate conservatives who have always been the core of his support.
These are the Republicans who feel they have been trampled by the religious right of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Phyllis Schlafly on such issues as abortion rights and the treatment of homosexuals. Now they feel a clear need for reassurance that Mr. Bush has not forgotten who put him where he is today.
All in all, it is a tall order for one speech -- even if it is "the most important speech of his life."