Battle Stations!

There were fireworks aplenty, both the verbal variety and a planned closing-night aerial display aimed at transforming the Houston Astrodome into a Fourth of July picnic. There were noisy protests outside and angry words inside. Looming above it all was a massive, faux-granite podium that, while seemingly more suited to Orwell than oratory, was created to give George Bush a platform for an urgent attempt to recast his embattled Presidency.

But as Republicans prepared to leave behind Houston and a convention notable for its hard-edged conservatism, some key questions echoed through the Astrodome. Among them: Was the Big Roundup enough to lasso the GOP's feuding factions and give the President a chance to pull off the miraculous Trumanesque comeback he promised? And would Bush's fiery attacks on Congress shift attention away from his economic failures?

Thanks to a feisty tone lacking in Bush's recent stump ramblings, the GOP gala figures to cut Bill Clinton's 20-point lead. But Bush aides admit he faces an uphill fight. That will force the President to wage a take-no-prisoners campaign (box). "Our plan?" says a key Bush adviser. "It's attack, attack, attack. We have to scare the daylights out of people."

Far from showcasing the party's strengths, the Aug. 17-20 conclave exposed possible flaws in Bush's reelection blueprint. He had to devote much time and energy to pacifying conservatives with tough platform planks and prime speaking slots. Only then could he shift the focus to the independents and Reagan Democrats who will decide his fate--and may get a new wake-up call from billionaire Ross Perot. "The Democrats spent their convention reaching out to the center," says GOP consultant Jay Severin III. "Our biggest order of business was reenergizing the Republican Party. If that's all you do, you lose."

Republican conventions are often militant. What's more striking about Houston was Bush's belief that after 12 years in the White House, he can run as a reformer. By stressing a repackaged bundle of tax incentives and spending restraints and hinting at second-term plans to retool health care, education, and even his Cabinet, Bush has cast himself as a quiet revolutionary. "We aren't offering pie-in-the-sky change," says James Lake, a senior Bush campaign aide. "It has to be thoughtful, deliberative change."

After four years of economic stagnation, though, the public is in a mood for something a mite bolder. And Republicans may have reinforced their ties to the past by turning Houston into a nostalgic Golden Oldies revue. Among the featured speakers: former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, Kansas Senator Bob Dole, Patrick Buchanan, televangelist Pat Robertson, and the Silver Fox herself, Barbara Bush. Scoffs Clinton political guru James Carville: "They trotted out so many old warhorses, they needed a veterinarian."

The Bush team is also gambling that it can finesse unhappiness with the President's economic record. Supply siders, led by Housing Secretary Jack F. Kemp, urged a more daring approach: slash tax rates, lavish tax subsidies on the cities, and ditch the deficit-cutting focus of the party's traditionalist wing. "We have to do something radically different," insists one glum Kempite. "Our economic policies over the past three years have been an utter failure."

But Bush could not bring himself to embrace the costly supply-side agenda. By backing modest, investment-oriented tax cuts, hinting at lower rates in a second term, and insisting on further deficit reduction, Bush took a familiar path: He coopted the Young Turks' rhetoric, while rejecting many of their proposals. The result, says one conservative official: "We have a schizoid President."

DOMESTIC STORM. The Administration continues to dangle the tax-reduction carrot for a second term. Among the options: a cut in Social Security payroll taxes, lower individual rates, a package of small-business tax cuts, a new look at ending the double taxation of dividends--even a new consumption tax to pay for it all. Muses Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady: "Lots of permuta-tions might be possible if you had a newCongress."

While Bush reshapes his economic agenda, some Republicans worry that he may overplay his role as foreign-policy maven. At the urging of campaign czar James A. Baker III, Bush is laying out a complex rationale for his four-year fling with foreign affairs. Now that Bush has won the cold war, the new line goes, he can turn his organizational genius to a Domestic Desert Storm that will target festering domestic ills. And Pax Bushiana will open new trade opportunities in the Western hemisphere. The payoff: jobs, jobs, jobs.

On the stump, Bush will trumpet the North American Free Trade Agreement linking the U.S. with Mexico and Canada. But in the key states of the industrial Midwest, NAFTA triggers anxiety about job losses. The pact's benefits may not show up for years. "We're on the worst side of the sound bite," concedes U.S. Trade Representative Carla A. Hills. "It takes a lot of words to explain how this agreement will increase jobs."

That doesn't mean the President will just be firing blanks when he gallops out of Texas. Clinton remains vulnerable on the character issue and his record as Arkansas governor. And it won't take much prompting to make many voters uneasy about his plans to hike taxes on the wealthy to pay for a $200 billion construction program.

As long as the economy keeps Bush on the defensive, though, his survival rests almost solely on continuous Clinton-bashing. Some of the fiercest thrusts will try to portray Clinton and running mate Al Gore as social and economic radicals. In Houston, the duo was savaged for backing gay rights, cherishing "insects, rats, and birds" over U.S. jobs, and hawking an economic plan that will turn the middle class into serfs.

CENTER STAGE. Even some Bush officials wonder about those fulminations. "I don't think Bill Clinton is Jimmy Carter," says Kemp. "If anything, he has taken some themes from John Kennedy. The election won't be decided by calling Clinton a big-spending liberal, but by saying what we're for."

Indeed, Clinton has done a good job of occupying the political center. He wants welfare recipients to work, vows to hire 100,000 new cops, spouts a hawkish line on Bosnia and Iraq, and supports the death penalty. Says Karlyn H. Keene, a polling specialist at the American Enterprise Institute: "These guys don't look like extremists. The Bush people will have to be careful."

But with his Presidency on the line, George Bush has little choice but to flail at Clinton in hopes of landing at least one solid blow on the elusive Arkansan. Bush may yet find his lethal weapon in the dusty record bins of some obscure Arkansas agency. But if Houston is any indication, all he has so far is trusty companion Jim Baker at his side, a few barbed one-liners--and hints of a second-term agenda that may strike many voters as too little, too late. "Baker's good," sighs one top GOP strategist. "But there really hasn't been a Miracle Worker since Patty Duke grew up."

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