Barking like an underdog, prodded by a right-wing challenger, a folksy, feisty Bush hits the campaign trail with a vengeance.
January 27, 1992
In politics, as in sports, George Bush never fights harder than when he is behind. Though he would bristle at the suggestion, he actually likes to be dismissed as a loser so he can pull off an upset. Thus he arrived in New Hampshire last week acting more like a scrappy underdog than an incumbent President. For 15 hours he scrambled around the southeast part of the economically devastated state, shaking hands, patting cows and assuring residents that he understood their worries. "I know I've got a lot of problems here," he told them, "but we're going to take care of those by demonstrating what I feel in my heart."
Bush and campaign manager Robert Teeter worked out their New Hampshire game plan after the President returned from his hapless trip to Japan. Their strategy: take some blame for the economy, stress Bush's longtime ties to the state and, except for some well-placed reminders about the Desert Storm triumph, avoid foreign policy. Masking his patrician demeanor beneath a folksy veneer, Bush began dropping his final g's and r's with a vengeance, substituting "fixin' ta" for "going to" and quoting the lyrics of country- music songs.
Bush oozed economic empathy at every stop. Rejecting suggestions that he was out of touch with the plight of average Americans, he repeatedly insisted, "I care very much about the people that are hurting in this state." He noted seven times in nine appearances that the first floor of his ancestral summer home in nearby Kennebunkport, Me., had been clobbered in a freak hurricane last October. "When a storm hits the seacoast here," he said in Portsmouth, "it hits me."
Previewing his State of the Union message next week, the President promised to create new jobs, prop up real estate values, help Americans with health- care costs and make the nation more competitive. His apology for declaring the recession over last summer was perhaps the shrewdest stroke. "I probably have made mistakes in assessing the fact that the economy would recover," he said. Such statements are designed to disarm voters who blame both Bush and Congress for the economic problems but blame Bush more. As one leading New Hampshire Republican put it, "Voters here are so unaccustomed to hearing a mea culpa from a politician that when they do, they love it."
But they have also been hearing a lot from Republican challenger Pat Buchanan, who has made five trips to the state since announcing his candidacy last month. Taunting Bush for breaking his famous no-new-taxes promise of 1988, Buchanan signed a written pledge to that effect and challenged the President to do the same. Asked about the dare, Bush brushed it aside with a facetious two-word dismissal: "What pledge?"
G.O.P. analysts have been publicly predicting that Buchanan will win more than 40%. These are inflated estimates intended to make Bush look impressive by doing better than expected; privately, Bush aides admit that Buchanan's real ceiling is probably closer to 25%.
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