The Incredible Shrinking President

With Bush under wraps, Quayle emerges as the Administration's re-election point man

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Like a once great slugger emerging from a long slump, George Bush finally pushed one over the bleachers last week. After 10 months of maneuvering to little effect on the recession, the Los Angeles riots and the Rio Earth Summit, Bush won from Boris Yeltsin a breakthrough arms-control deal and engineered the horseshoe-throwing, arm-around-Barbara scenes that remind people of his other up-close-and-personal diplomatic triumphs.

Nonetheless, it is doubtful that the first Russian-American summit did Bush much good. He is in such poor political shape that Yeltsin, world peace and a cure for the common cold might not revive him. The public's regard for the dithering President has sunk to all-time lows: more than 50% of those + questioned in a recent survey disapprove of his handling of his job. "Bush had a pretty good substantive week," said a campaign official last Friday, "but the sad thing is that what we do has very little effect on folks. He's had such a bad spell for so long that it's hard for people to believe he could do anything right. By now, when George Bush talks, a lot of people just turn down the volume."

Bush's shrinking presidency is, oddly enough, partly the result of his re- election strategy. Since late last year, Bush has seen his campaign through the prism of 1988, when he ignored his advisers' pleas and waited until August before casting off the constraints of the vice presidency and posing as a moderate who had chafed under Ronald Reagan's conservative shackles. Bush, who likes to lower expectations and then surprise everyone by beating the depressed odds, again wants to wait until the Republican Convention in August to redefine himself. Bush expected that just as in 1988, he would slip behind in polls and then, when pundits had nearly written him off, he would come back with a boffo convention speech and a blitzkrieg campaign. In the meantime, he would direct his army of surrogates to shoulder the unpleasant job of "defining" Ross Perot and Bill Clinton.

At the moment, Vice President Dan Quayle is doing most of the heavy political lifting, arousing the G.O.P. faithful by labeling Perot a "temperamental tycoon" and attacking totems of the "cultural elite," from Murphy Brown to Time Warner and its rap recording artist Ice-T, as out of touch with family values. Bush likes to pretend he finds such negative tactics distasteful. When encouraged to comment on his sidekick's speeches, Bush is careful to distance himself with such lines as, "You better ask Mr. Quayle." But the Vice President isn't free-lancing; Bush campaign chairman Bob Teeter personally approved Quayle's characterization of Perot. As a Quayle staffer puts it, "Bush's genius is that he's always kept people around him to do his dirty work."

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