WASHINGTON -- President Bush's decision to become personally involved in making the case against Bill Clinton on his draft record reflects a deep-seated frustration in the president's campaign. The problem, only slightly oversimplified, is that they haven't found a way to stop the bleeding.
After flirting with the notion of running on "family values" -- an idea shot down by the negative reaction in the opinion polls after the Houston convention -- the Bush campaign seemed to settle on a strategy with two principal elements. The first would be to persuade the voters that Bush has a coherent and plausible plan for dealing with the economy. The second would be to raise questions about Clinton's character by pursuing him on the draft.
So far, however, neither approach has worked. Despite his much-advertised speech before the Economic Club of Detroit on his "agenda" for the nation, Bush still hasn't managed to achieve his credibility. His advisers say that when voters are presented with the elements of the Bush plan, they react favorably -- until they discover it is Bush's plan, whereupon they reject it.
The offensive on the draft issue, heretofore left largely in the hands of Vice President Dan Quayle and other surrogates, has met similar resistance. Fewer than 20 percent of the voters say the draft question will be a factor in their decision Nov. 3, and the suspicion among the political professionals is that these are primarily conservatives who wouldn't tell Clinton if his coat was on fire.
The surrogate approach never made much sense. Voters pay some attention to what the presidential candidates themselves have to say, but the notion of Dan Quayle, hero of the Indiana National Guard, lecturing on this issue is a bit of a stretch. So now Bush himself has jumped into the controversy with his declaration on the Rush Limbaugh radio program that Clinton hasn't told "the whole truth" about the draft and needs to come clean and explain such things as why he considered the military "immoral" when he wrote that notorious letter to the commanding officer of the Reserve Officers Training Corps at the University of Arkansas.
To no one's surprise, Bush got the whole thing a little mixed-up. Clinton never called the military "immoral" although he did say he considered the draft "illegitimate." But the president nonetheless made his central point -- that his Democratic rival's history on the draft should be a factor in considering whether he might be a prudent choice for commander in chief.
But the president is not in an ideal position to make this case because he is so clearly on the defensive himself. One of the axioms of politics is that a candidate with high negatives is not credible making a negative case against an opponent. And what the polls spell out is that Bush is in dire straits indeed -- running no better than even in states such as Florida and Indiana that should be locked up by now, running 20 points behind in battlegrounds such as Illinois and Missouri, trailing by 13 points in New Jersey and 10 in Ohio, the two Rust Belt states considered the most reliably Republican.
There is no mystery about any of this. Bush is suffering widespread Republican defections, both among those concerned with the economy and with those in more affluent areas who have the flexibility to be concerned with other issues, such as abortion rights and "family values." He is, his own strategists concede, running poorly among the so-called Reagan Democrats, meaning culturally conservative Democrats who crossed over in the last three elections.
There are even problems for him in Southern and border states that have been reliably Republican in every presidential election since 1964 except when Southerner Jimmy Carter ran his first race in 1976. New surveys show Bush trailing in Georgia and Kentucky and no better than even, if that, in Louisiana and his home state of Texas.
But the president and his advisers seemed to be caught in a time warp. The message in the emphasis on the draft issue is that they believe they can raise enough doubts about Clinton to destroy him just as they raised doubts about Michael Dukakis four years ago.
But the situation is by no means comparable.