For Bush, A Weak Run In '92 Could Hobble A Second Term

George Bush couldn't have hoped for a better August. He got to enjoy one of his hyperactive Maine vacations, leaping from fishing boat to golf tee while events abroad reminded voters that foreign policy--Bush's strong suit--remains vitally important. But to the President's political advisers, this summer has been a season of intense frustration. With less than a year to go before Bush's certain renomination at the Republican convention in Houston, the President is showing no interest in getting his reelection campaign going. "We're all chomping at the bit, and the President is a total zombie," grumbles a senior strategist.

Yet while Bush bides his time, trouble may be brewing. Leaders of the Bush campaign-in-waiting, deprived of a chance to take on the enemy, are bickering among themselves, squabbling over turf, and musing about pursuing other opportunities if the race doesn't get started soon. "These are people who love politics," explains Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. "If they don't have anybody else to fight with, they fight with each other."

So far, the Democrats--still lacking a credible, willing candidate--are poorly positioned to take advantage of turmoil in the Bush camp. But politics is a treacherous business. If issues swing the Democrats' way, or a major scandal erupts within the Administration, or a heavyweight contender emerges, Bush could come to regret the slow start of his reelection bid.

USUAL SUSPECTS. Normally, the campaign's key players would be in place by now. The script calls for Commerce Secretary Robert A. Mosbacher to resign his post to become campaign chairman, chief fund-raiser, and Bush's best buddy on the campaign staff. Veteran pollster Robert M. Teeter will serve as chief political strategist. NWA Inc. Vice-Chairman Frederick V. Malek plans to leave the airline to run day-to-day operations, and Roger Ailes is expected to design campaign ads and media strategy. Chief of Staff John H. Sununu would stay at the White House with little direct role in the campaign, a prospect that doesn't please the combative Sununu.

But that organization is now in jeopardy. Ailes, for example, is unhappy with White House image-meister Sigmund Rogich, who has let it be known that he wants to handle campaign media. Ailes has been huffing that he may stay off the team. Other key players privately say they wonder if their commitment to the reelection effort is worth it when the President steadfastly refuses to even talk about the upcoming campaign, let alone plan it.

RELUCTANT WARRIOR. The President did allow the topic of campaign plans to come up at an August session at Camp David, but got annoyed when the discussion reignited a dispute between the backers of Sununu and Teeter. "That's it. No more," Sununu muttered to aides in Kennebunkport, Me., after trying to raise the subject with Bush.

Bush's diffidence has also put a hold on the development of campaign issues. He invited domestic advisers to Kennebunkport but limited their discussion to his paltry plans for the remainder of this term. With Bush yet to craft a campaign stance on such hot topics as abortion and health care, there's a danger that the White House will let the Democrats steal a march on 1992. Republicans are woefully divided on both issues.

Bush, riding high on his latest foreign crisis, wants to enjoy the luxury of being a President rather than a Presidential candidate for as long as possible. And, to be sure, once Bush decides to throw the campaign into gear, his team can take shape almost instantly. But Bush's willingness to let the campaign drift may cost him in the end: His reluctance to develop an agenda for the next four years could leave him victorious but lacking a mandate to tackle the nation's problems.

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