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Pivotal week for Bush. SPOTLIGHT ON THE GOP

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GEORGE BUSH, like a star quarterback whose team is losing the championship game, now begins a pivotal drive that he hopes will turn the contest around. As Republicans gather today in steamy New Orleans, Vice-President Bush will have little time to enjoy the sights in this beautiful city. He faces one of the most pressure-packed weeks of his career.

Once favored to win the presidency, Mr. Bush has battled since June against slumping polls and sliding confidence. Michael Dukakis, his Democratic opponent, has shown unexpected strength.

The made-for-TV convention, a four-day extravaganza in the Superdome, will whip up the partisan fans like a giant pep rally. But Bush still must call the plays that will overcome the Democrats.

Although polls have gotten closer in recent days (one tracking poll even showed Bush slightly ahead), pundits rate the vice-president an underdog as Governor Dukakis cuts into Bush strength in every corner of the country.

Political analyst John Chubb says Bush's goal at this week's convention is straightforward: ``He needs to pick up 10 points in the polls.''

To make that happen, Bush must do at least three things.

First, he must choose a vice-president who won't drive away either mainstream or conservative voters.

It's a delicate task. Already, 35 conservative groups, united as the ``Coalition for a Winning Ticket,'' are pressuring Bush to pick someone from their wing of the party.

Yet Bush might feel the need to go the other way - with a moderate running mate. It may be the only way to attract more independents and Democrats.

Second, Bush needs to weaken Mr. Dukakis.

A GOP consultant, William Feltus, says: ``The Republican convention has got to start educating people about Michael Dukakis.''

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