WASHINGTON STAFF WRITER JOHN FAIRHALL CONTRIBUTED TO THIS STORY. — WASHINGTON -- Within weeks of an election he could lose because of the sickly economy, even his own aides say President Bush still hasn't convinced voters he has any idea of how to cure it.
Mr. Bush's re-election campaign is desperately trying to spark a debate over which candidate has the better prescription for sparking economic recovery. The idea is that Democrat Bill Clinton can be beaten if he appears to rely too much on raising taxes.
The president will make his case today in a speech in Detroit and in five-minute television ads scheduled to be shown this evening on the four major networks.
Mr. Bush gave a brief preview at a rally in New Jersey yesterday, when he acknowledged: "We've been through economic hell in this country." He then flatly promised for the first time that he would never again break his 1988 no-new-taxes pledge. "Ever. Ever."
Although no "magic" solutions are promised, Mr. Bush today is expected to offer a few "twists" to his previously announced proposals.
They include trade policies, legal reforms, welfare reform, education reform, job training, government de-regulation and health care reform. All are to be woven into a broad picture of where the president wants to take the country in a second term, officials said.
The speech was described as mostly a "conceptual" presentation based on the themes of White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III's resignation speech from the State Department last month. Mr. Baker in his speech talked about the United States' "winning the peace" as an economic superpower, a military superpower and an export superpower.
But so far, despite at least three attempts this year alone to detail his approach for reversing the loss of jobs -- by encouraging investment and rebuilding consumer confidence -- Mr. Bush has not been able to shake the perception among many voters that he represents the status quo and that only a vote for Mr. Clinton would bring about change.
In his acceptance speech to the Republican National Convention last month, the president offered two new proposals: a 10 percent income tax check-off for Americans who want to contribute some of their money directly to paying off the debt and an across-the-board tax cut.
He said both would have to be offset by spending cuts, but he refused to provide specifics and has talked only in vague terms about the proposals since.
As a practical matter, there may not be much more Mr. Bush can say to an electorate looking for short-term relief from what appears to be a long-term economic problem largely brought about by massive federal budget deficits.
"If you look at the options, there aren't that many," said Norman Robertson, chief economist for the Mellon Bank in Pittsburgh. "I expect whoever is elected will put through some kind of a tax cut, largely for political purposes, but with deficits in excess of $300 billion we can't afford much."
The new White House team led by Mr. Baker hopes it can at least make some improvements in the president's presentation.
The Bush aides look covetously at Mr. Clinton's 23-page economic plan, put forth last spring, which has just been expanded into a book called, "Putting People First," and see tangible evidence of ideas.
Mr. Clinton proposes a combination of public and private investment in economic growth, including expanded investment tax incentives for companies, and more than $200 billion in new federal spending over the next four years.
Much of the federal money would go for transportation, communications, education and training, which he says would provide jobs and serve as building blocks for long-term growth.
The Democrat also would give the middle class a tax break and guarantee health insurance coverage for all Americans by requiring businesses to either provide insurance or pay the government to do so.
To finance all this -- and meet his goal of cutting the deficit in half in four years -- Mr. Clinton proposes to raise taxes on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, cut defense more sharply than Mr. Bush and control health-care costs by setting a national ceiling on health care spending.
"It pretty much has 23 blank pages," a senior White House official said of Mr. Clinton's economic plan. "But I give him credit because it makes people think he has a plan, and a lot of people don't think the president does."
So, in his latest attempt to cross that vital threshold, Mr. Bush will make his ideas available today in print in what one aide called "a lengthy agenda paper."
No word yet on how soon it might be available at bookstores.