A Presidential Campaign In Search Of A Rudder

When Lee Atwater died last March, all of political Washington knew that George Bush would miss the architect of his 1988 electoral triumph once the '92 campaign got rolling. But until the President's polls nose-dived this fall, no one realized just how keenly the loss would be felt.

Atwater earned a search-and-destroy reputation in the '88 campaign by making furloughed prisoner Willie Horton a household name and ridiculing Michael S. Dukakis for being soft on the Pledge of Allegiance. But Atwater's real genius was his feel for the pulse of the middle class. He helped the patrician Bush harness the seething resentments of average Americans.

That instinct has been sorely lacking in recent White House maneuvers. Hurting workers are not assuaged by Bush's assurances that the economy is mending, that a cut in capital-gains taxes will be good for them, and that he'll tackle the problem of inadequate medical insurance when he's good and ready.

'NOBODY IN CHARGE.' Bush has delayed putting the White House into campaign mode for two reasons. He thinks he'll benefit from staying "Presidential" for as long as possible. And he has been unwilling to resolve a bitter internal struggle over who will be top dog in the '92 campaign--White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu or a longtime adviser such as Robert M. Teeter. Despite Sununu's many gaffes, Bush appears to have no immediate plans to ditch the combative staff chief--or to freeze him out of campaign decision-making.

Until Bush stops dithering--and finds a new Atwater--the problems will persist. "They have no plan, and nobody in charge," says top GOP strategist Stuart Spencer. Normally, Bush intimate James A. Baker III would step in to take command. But the peripatetic Secretary of State is working full-time on the Middle East peace conference. In Baker's absence, such veteran GOP pols as consultant Charles Black and former Reagan Staff Chief Kenneth M. Duberstein could be tapped for top roles in the reelection effort.

But first, Bush must free himself from the iron grip of his politically maladroit advisers, including Sununu, Budget Director Richard G. Darman, and Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady. Murmuring that "good policy is good politics," they predict that the economy will soon snap back, allowing the President to resume his glide to reelection.

Such confidence is shared by few in GOP ranks. Republicans are terrified by polls showing Bush's approval rating down to 51% and nervous over growing signs of a GOP bloodbath in the '92 Senate races. Some even worry that the President's passivity indicates lack of interest in a second-term domestic program. In fact, morale is so low in the White House that James P. Pinkerton, who has pushed the concept of empowering the poor as a substitute for traditional Democratic social programs, is thinking of quitting as director of policy planning. Pinkerton has been frustrated to see many of his ideas picked up not by Bush but by Democratic contender Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton (page 60 50 ).

"The President didn't expect to be in this spot," concedes one close adviser. Now, Bush is pinning his turnaround on his January State of the Union Address. He's promising a bold offensive that will, as one intimate puts it, "show the American people the President is as interested in bringing change at home as he has been to the world."

But, hamstrung by the deficit, Bush is unlikely to offer much more than rhetoric. And if he offers merely a slick public relations effort, the Democrats will keep pounding him with charges of domestic neglect. So finding a street fighter like Atwater is all the more important. As former Reagan political director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. says: "I don't care who he picks, but the President has to pick somebody real soon."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.