This Saturday, George Bush is expected to score a sweeping victory in the presidential straw ballot at the Florida Republican state convention. That could be his problem. Challenger Pat Robertson can carry away the campaign momentum just by putting a dent in Mr. Bush's showing.
The last time Florida Republicans held a straw ballot, in 1979, Ronald Reagan won. But Bush finished second, launching a surge of campaign momentum he called ``big mo.''
This year, Bush is the frontrunner, and Mr. Robertson, the evangelist broadcaster, is jockeying for position as a top-rank contender.
All the other Republican aspirants have bowed out of this peculiar contest - and potent media event - in the face of the special strengths of Bush and Robertson. No delegates are at stake here, only the frothy status of perceived winner and loser.
In Florida Saturday, Robertson will not have to win to win. If he can merely lose by less than expected, he will succeed in establishing the seriousness of his candidacy.
In the maneuvering to manage expectations, both campaigns are busy poor-mouthing their prospects, working to set themselves low benchmarks for success this weekend. Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater has said in recent months that the vice-president will do well to win 55 percent. The campaign's Florida spokesman, Jay Morgan, says more humbly that the Bush goal is to outpoll Reagan's 38 percent in 1979.
The Bush camp seeks to create a picture of a competitive contest where political observers say that Bush supporters have controlled the rules of the game and been able to handpick many of the voters.
The Robertson camp wants to paint a picture of a race where Bush controlled the rules, and where even a 20 percent vote Saturday means success.
Now that Robertson's Florida coordinator, David Zachem, knows who the convention delegates are, he will only say: ``I think we did very well.''
The voters in this straw ballot are not exactly a scientific sample. Nearly one in five will be party leaders, elected officials, and major donors. Of the rest, each county picks 30 percent of its delegation by executive committee and 70 percent by lottery.
Bush thoroughly dominates the structure of the Florida Republican Party. The governor and many party leaders are committed Bush loyalists. County by county, Bush organizers are working for a Bush blowout Saturday.