HOUSTON -- President Bush fired the first shots of his come-from-behind fight for a second term last night as the Republican National Convention drew to a thunderous close.
Amid the chants of "Four more years," there were few signs that Mr. Bush has a new battle plan for a second term beyond a vague promise of an across-the-board tax cut. He broke no major new ground in a stemwinder of an acceptance speech that bore the stamp of his new campaign chairman, James A. Baker III.
Inside the Astrodome, the convention ended in a blizzard of balloons and fireworks, and party members were hoping Mr. Bush's rhetoric would provide the pyrotechnics to spark one of the biggest comebacks in modern political history.
As the 10-week general election campaign begins, the president is clearly the underdog, though new poll results released yesterday showed him starting to close the gap against Democrat Bill Clinton.
"This election is about change," Mr. Bush said in his 59-minute speech. "The question is: Who do you trust to make change work for you?" Thousands of flag-waving, sign-toting delegates on the convention floor responded with chants of "George Bush" and "We trust George."
But Mr. Bush appeared reluctant to offer a radical shift in his
policies. His speech offered little more than recycled proposals from his first three and a half years in office, including a cap on new government spending, a line-item veto and a balanced budget amendment.
Mr. Bush's threat last night to veto any appropriations bill that exceeded his budget request has long been under consideration at the White House. Another idea, to allow voters to earmark up to 10 percent of their tax payment for deficit reduction, is the brainchild of conservative Rep. Robert S. Walker of Pennsylvania.
Near the end of his speech, Mr. Bush also promised "across-the-board tax cuts" as long as Congress agreed to cut spending by the same amount. But he did not specify which programs should be eliminated to finance a tax cut.
The speech was liberally laced with potshots at Mr. Clinton, whom he termed "Carter II."
Claiming that his opponent has taken both sides on many issues, Mr. Bush said, "he's been spotted in more places than Elvis Presley."
Mr. Bush acknowledged that many Americans still have questions about him, nearly four years after taking office. He proclaimed, "I feel great," in response to persistent, unsubstantiated rumors that he is seriously ill.
To cheers from the largely conservative convention throng, he also expressed "regrets" to his party for breaking the "no new taxes" pledge made in his acceptance speech four years ago. He called it "a bad call" and "a mistake."
Mr. Bush insisted his economic policies "haven't failed. They haven't been tried." Though acknowledging that the public is tired of the Washington "blame game," he again made Congress prime target, calling on voters to "roll back the roadblock" in Washington by electing a Republican House and Senate this fall.
Contrasting his foreign policy record with Mr. Clinton's lack of credentials in that area, Mr. Bush said the United States must become "an economic superpower and an export superpower" in order to "win the peace" in the post-Cold War era. That language, along with other ideas in the speech, were lifted directly from the farewell speech Mr. Baker gave last week as he prepared to step down as secretary of state.
In a veiled attack on Mr. Clinton's decision to avoid the Vietnam War draft, Mr. Bush made repeated and emotional references to his service in World War II, calling it a time "when God introduces you to yourself."
As the four-day convention was ending, a voter survey Tuesday and Wednesday by CBS News found Mr. Bush pulling within 11 %% percentage points of the Arkansas governor. A week ago the margin was 18 points.
The poll also showed that this week's convention is achieving one of its political goals -- driving up negative feelings toward Mr. Clinton. However, voters still retain a positive overall impression of the Democratic nominee, while Mr. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle continue to be viewed unfavorably.
Less likely to turn around quickly is the sluggish economy, which has stuttered along at a slow rate of growth for months. As if to underscore that fact, new Labor Department figures released yesterday morning showed the number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits shot up last week to a 10-year high.
Mr. Bush was slow to act when the expected economic recovery failed to ignite last year, and some of his top advisers still argue that the economic climate is not nearly as bad as many Americans think.
"A lot of that is attitudinal and not real experience," White House pollster Robert Teeter, the president's campaign chairman, told reporters. He blamed the downbeat national mood -- as many as four out of five Americans think the country has gotten off on the wrong track -- in part on slanted news coverage that has made things look worse than they really are.