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Bush Walks Precarious Road to '92

Experts say the president is vulnerable to short-term economics, Baltic unrest, party infighting. PRESIDENTIAL POLITICS

WILL George Bush, the man who waged war on Saddam Hussein, be reelected in 1992? Or will other factors, like a slumping American economy, turn Mr. Bush into a one-term president? In less than a year, New Hampshire voters will begin to answer those questions in the nation's lead-off presidential primary. Bush's sky-high support in the polls and the smashing military success so far in the Gulf war point to an easy campaign.

But political pundits warn that the president's war-enhanced popularity could decline quickly - just as Winston Churchill's did after World War II.

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Historian Allan Lichtman, who has charted presidential elections back to 1860, says the president's current strength is far more vulnerable than the polls indicate.

Bush's standing is ``precarious,'' Dr. Lichtman says flatly. ``He cannot afford any setbacks.''

Lichtman bases his warning on a system he developed with Ken DeCell, senior editor of the Washingtonian magazine. The system involves 13 ``keys,'' or indicators, to winning the White House. The keys include factors like domestic economy, foreign-policy failures, previous election results, and personal charisma.

The professor's research shows that since 1860, no president with six or more ``keys'' turned against him has ever won an election. Bush currently has lost four keys. His predecessor, Ronald Reagan, lost only two. Jimmy Carter lost eight.

``The prospects would be very grim for Bush if he lost six keys,'' Lichtman says.

The warning about Bush's potential weakness in 1992 comes when the president seems almost invulnerable. Indeed, some critics deride the Lichtman-DeCell method as ``superficial.''

But other analysts, such as Stephen Hess, a political scholar at the Brookings Institution, say it ``seems to be a perfectly sensible system.''

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Lichtman says the four keys pointing down for Bush are:

1. Party mandate. In the 1988 and 1990 elections, Republicans lost House seats.

2. Long-term economy. Since Bush took office, the economy has performed more poorly than during each of the previous two presidential terms.

3. Domestic policy. Bush has failed to make any major breakthroughs in important areas of domestic legislation.

4. Personal charisma. Although quite popular, Bush lacks the appeal of Mr. Reagan or John Kennedy, or the national hero status of Dwight Eisenhower.

Even with four keys against him, Bush should be able to retain the White House if conditions do not worsen. But analysts say the president has at least four additional areas, or keys, where he could be at risk in the next several months.

Perhaps the most important is the short-term economy. With the campaign year approaching, economic problems are spreading even to New Hampshire, one of New England's most robust states.

Unemployment in the Granite State has risen from 2.2 percent two years ago to 6.3 percent today. Layoffs have hit key industries, like computers, construction, and defense. All of its five major banks are ailing.

Unless the national economy strengthens, unemployment falls, and job creation improves, the fifth key could click against Bush.

Another key could be foreign policy. The final outcome in Iraq is unknown. The Soviet Union's crisis in the Baltics also could be an embarrassment to Bush. If things go sour in either place, the sixth key could turn down, as unlikely as that now seems as American ground forces sweep forward through Kuwait.

The seventh key involves Bush's own party, whose conservatives have grown restless. Trouble began with the 1990 budget agreement, when Bush reneged on his no-new-taxes pledge. Many conservatives have never forgiven him.

Since then, ``things have almost become worse,'' says Yale Burton Pines, senior vice president at the Heritage Foundation. After careful study of Bush's new, 1992 budget, Mr. Pines calls it ``a dreadful, dreadful budget with a huge jump in federal spending.''

Although the administration claimed that spending was held to the level of inflation, Pines says ``that is not true at all. It is growing 20 percent faster than inflation. Federal spending under Bush ... has grown 10 percent a year for the past two years, compared to 1 percent a year under Reagan,'' after adjustment for inflation.

The risk in all this for Bush is that conservatives could mount an intraparty challenge.

Democrats control the eighth key, if they nominate a charismatic candidate. Charisma can be a powerful weapon in politics, as Franklin Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, and Mr. Reagan all showed.

Mr. Hess says if Democrats go for charisma, Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York would be one obvious choice. A commanding, dynamic speaker and a big state governor, Governor Cuomo would be able to challenge the president for the media spotlight.

Bush remains the favorite for '92. But just one or two major events could make the keys click for Democrats.

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