A believer, bloodied but unbowed Bush in fine form despite the polls

September 24, 1992|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- If George Bush is about to lose this election he doesn't seem to know it yet.

Star-spangled bands still play, red, white and blue placards still wave, crowds nearly swoon just at the sight of his gleaming aircraft. And the president is determinedly upbeat -- full of winks and waves, and grinning like he's 30 percentage points ahead instead of 10 to 20 points behind.

Now in the final weeks of his last campaign after 30 years in politics, aides say Mr. Bush has found a kind of serenity that sustains him no matter what they or anybody else may think about his prospects.

"Nobody will believe it, but he's really right-headed about this thing," said deputy campaign manager Mary Matalin on Tuesday as Mr. Bush skipped into a rousing welcome at an airport hangar in Greenville, Miss. "He gets energized from this."

It may be unrealistic; it may be false bravado; it may be that George Bush knows more than most everyone else about what he can accomplish. But he believes he's going to win, his friends say.

"I remain confident, recognizing that we've got an uphill fight," Mr. Bush wrote in a note to former press secretary Sheila Tate early this month. She says, "I can tell by the other things he says in the note that he really means it."

Clearly, Mr. Bush seems to have kicked a bad bout of the blues that overtook him in late spring and early summer, when it became clear that after 12 years in the White House as president and vice president he would have to sell himself to the American people all over again.

Although fatigue takes an inevitable toll after endurance tests such as Tuesday's swing through six states and back to Washington again in 16 hours, Mr. Bush never appears downcast -- in contrast to how his supporters often seem these days.

"I felt better just seeing how the crowd responded to him," said Linda Johnson, 44, a school psychologist from Memphis, after a Bush rally Tuesday night at Craigmont High School. A partisan gathering of 2,000 had been whipped to such a frenzy before the president's arrival that it was screaming "George Bush," "Four More Years" and "Free Trade" with almost the same passion teen-age girls once reserved for Elvis.

"When you read the newspapers and hear on television about all these polls, it's a little depressing," Ms. Johnson said.

Presidential scholar Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution notes that it is a candidate's job to keep up the troops' spirits. "Richard Nixon told me 10 days before the California governor's race that he was going to lose; that didn't mean he spent the next nine days with a frown on his face," he recalled.

He also observed that Republicans have now become adept at the kind of manufactured displays of fervor that labor unions and machine bosses delivered for years to Democratic candidates.

The practiced hand of campaign chief James A. Baker III was particularly evident Tuesday in the use of the sleek and imposing Air Force One as a backdrop for the president's speeches. The crowds were nearly breathless with anticipation by the time Mr. Bush emerged from its portal.

Some say such displays only serve to distort reality, particularly for presidents, who live in a world where most everyone is thrilled just to see any president and where even outspoken critics rarely voice their opinions to his face.

Hecklers sometimes find their way into some of Mr. Bush's crowds, such as those who booed him yesterday at Pennsylvania State University. But they don't seem to make a big impression on him.

"When he goes to a baseball stadium to throw out the first ball, he knows there will be some boos, but he hears the cheers," a long-time friend said. "This is what happens to people. A certain amount of that comes with the office."

Mr. Bush's apparent good humor may stem in part from his familiarity with the role of underdog.

"He may be president of the United States, but all of his campaigns have been tough," said Peter Teeley, U.S. ambassador to Canada and another former Bush press secretary. Mr. Bush lost two races for the U.S. Senate and a bid for the presidency in 1980 before he won a come-from-behind victory in 1988.

In the Bush camp, they insist they don't believe polls such as the Washington Post-ABC News survey this week that showed Democratic challenger Bill Clinton ahead by 21 points. Their own polling shows the race much closer, perhaps in the single digits, campaign officials say.

Whatever the margin, Mr. Bush is said to be content that with Mr. Baker's return to the White House, he now has his first team in place, his message has been honed, and he can be free to just run as hard as he can and hope for the best.

"There is a funny kind of serenity there," said one campaign official. "It's his last campaign, and he understands what he has to do and what points he has to make. And when it's over, he's going to know for better or worse that he did what he wanted to do."

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