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Bush Campaign Faces Steep, Uphill Race

Democrat Bill Clinton leads by some 20 points, and the president has 75 days to wipe out the margin

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WHEN the 120th speaker, George Bush, steps before the Republican National Convention tonight to accept his party's presidential nomination, it will climax an intense, four-day effort to put new pep into the step of the Grand Old Party.

Effusive praise for President Bush has been poured across America by TV, radio, and newspapers from the spacious Astrodome in Houston. Ronald Reagan, Patrick Buchanan, Jack Kemp, Phil Gramm, and dozens of other Republican notables here gave the president credit for ending the cold war, expanding free trade, spreading private enterprise around the globe, and curbing the market in illegal drugs.

Yet throughout this jubilant red, white, and blue hall, where thousands applaud every good word about the Republicans, delegates from California to Florida know that with just 75 days left to campaign, time is growing short.

Ed Rollins, a Republican strategist who helped put President Reagan back into office in 1984, remains hopeful that Bush can overcome Gov. Bill Clinton's huge lead (20 points in the newest ABC News poll). But he warns:

"If the American public has made up its mind it wants someone other than George Bush, there's nothing that ... is going to turn [it] back around. If they [voters] have not quite reached that point yet ... then we may get back in the race."

On the convention floor, there are several things that delegates and party officials say must be done quickly to avoid what some of them worry could be an overwhelming defeat.

One of their foremost priorities is to slow the fast-running Mr. Clinton. Charles Black, a top strategist for President Bush, says the public must be convinced that Clinton is a "tax and spend" liberal from the same economic school as Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts.

Another urgent goal: They must contrast Bush's vast experience as president, vice president, ambassador to China and the United Nations, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and congressman with the limited experience of the Arkansas governor.

Mr. Buchanan, a conservative who got 3 million votes in the primaries by criticizing Bush's 1990 decision to raise taxes, got one of the biggest cheers of the week when he told delegates: "Bill Clinton's foreign-policy experience is pretty much limited to having breakfast once at the International House of Pancakes."

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