WASHINGTON -- Undeniable panic is gripping partisan Republicans, from rank-and-file voters to seasoned political operatives, with two full months left before the presidential election. They are dismayed not so much about the surge by Al Gore but the loss of confidence in George W. Bush.
This mood may reflect the very nature of the Grand Old Party. One Bush adviser puts it this way: "When Democrats face trouble, they circle the wagons; Republicans head for the tall grass." Perplexed by the boost the vice president was given by his pedestrian acceptance speech in Los Angeles, they are panicked by Gov. Bush's seeming inability to counter it.
Polling at the conclusion of the Labor Day weekend not only shows that the Democratic base has returned to Gore. More troubling are defections of vital independent voters from Bush. Since Los Angeles, it is not so much a case of the Democrats succeeding as Republicans failing. The Bush campaign's attempt to undermine Gore's credibility through its maneuvers on presidential debates has flopped, in the opinion of his own supporters.
Since his masterful performance at the Philadelphia convention, Bush has looked too much like Bob Dole in 1996. By not expanding on his acceptance speech's skillfully crafted call for tax reduction, Bush has led friend and foe to conclude -- however incorrect they may be -- that he no more believes in his conservative issues than Dole did. The question asked by Republicans: Why has he not pounded hard in favor of cutting taxes and against Gore's big government nostrums?
The complaint by the party faithful that Bush had permitted himself to be put on the defensive resulted in last week's television commercial, narrated by a sarcastic-sounding woman, attacking Gore's credibility on campaign finance reform. Bush sources say the ad was carefully tested in focus groups who gave rave reviews, especially from women. But Republican politicians prefer sticking to advertising that assaults Gore's position on prescription drug subsidies.
Perhaps the biggest immediate worry in Republican ranks concerns the Bush strategy on presidential debates. If the vice president truly has forged ahead to a commanding lead, the best opportunity to cut him down to size will be in a debate -- the sooner the better. Yet, the Bush campaign has devised an intricate strategy aimed at both creating a debate format suitable for the governor and assailing Gore's credibility.
But harping on Gore's refusal to appear with two regular television interviewers (NBC's Tim Russert and CNN's Larry King), whose invitations he previously had accepted, is far removed from the undecided voter at the lunch counter. The self-appointed presidential debate commission might be past due for its comeuppance, but Bush's rejection of its proposals make him appear to be avoiding a face-off with Gore.
Finally, Bush has been privately criticized by his own supporters for his obscene comment about a veteran (and very liberal) New York Times reporter. It was only a private remark by the presidential candidate to vice-presidential running mate Dick Cheney picked up by television microphones. But it was not "presidential," betraying a lack of the discipline that is essential for this long process.
The Bush campaign is certainly not the disaster of the last two Republican presidential efforts. Shortcomings have been tended to quickly. Cheney took care of his stock-option problem without letting it fester for long. Bush on Tuesday released his own prescription drug program, plugging another hole.
Still, Republican morale is drooping. I have heard from more than one Republican politician that the problem may not be Bush's at all, but the American people's. Could it be, they ask, that voters -- while enjoying prosperity -- really want more government instead of less? No Republican could fight that mindset of the electorate.
There is little doubt that George W. Bush needs to change the atmosphere to keep panicky backers from heading for the high grass. A sarcastic TV ad, a first-class prescription drug plan and a clever debate strategy won't suffice. The Republican candidate needs a boost, and at this stage that may require a face-to-face confrontation with Al Gore before the Olympics, even if it means concessions on the rest of the debates for the year.