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Bush Applies Incumbent's Power to Reelection Bid

FARM subsidies and mammoth military sales are just a few of the fistful of tidbits that President Bush has been dropping along the campaign trail, hoping to attract a long line of supporters.

The largess - viewed as frantic political opportunism by critics, defended as good government by Mr. Bush - isn't likely to help the president win the election, analysts say. His initiatives involve policy reversals, a new spin on old measures and, in one instance at least, the impossible.

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Among the president's promises to the defense sector:

* Rebuilding Florida's hurricane-demolished Homestead Air Force Base, which barely survived the Pentagon's butcher block in the last round of base closings.

* Rescuing both the Osprey tilt-rotor plane development and the M-1 tank modernization from White House-supported cutbacks.

* Dropping opposition to the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan (and jeopardizing ties with China, long cultivated by Bush); a strong endorsement of other fighter sales to Saudi Arabia.

Bush's promises to farmers:

* $750 million in disaster relief.

* $1 billion in subsidies for 1992-93 wheat exports (much of the wheat had already been sold, and the government had already agreed to subsidize most of the sales Bush is calling new. The slight expansion of next year's subsidies has angered US trade partners, now deadlocked over farm subsidies).

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Promises to conservatives:

* Indexing the capital-gains tax through executive order (a move that was quickly thwarted when the US Justice Department deemed it illegal).

Simply put, the president is exercising the power of incumbency. "Last year Bush said he would do anything to get re-elected, and we're seeing an illustration of that," says Robert Lieber, who chairs Georgetown University's government department.

"It's a typical pattern," says John White, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee during Jimmy Carter's 1980 reelection campaign. "We did it in 1980, emphasizing our involvement in states and cities with grants that were then sorely needed. [Former President Richard] Nixon did it in 1972 - he was an easy winner with dairy and grain price supports. Even Harry Truman did it," he says.

Just last month at the Republican National Convention in Houston, "Bush went on at length about reckless congressional spending and his great need for the line-item veto to eliminate all the pork," says Brookings Institution economist Barry Bosworth. "Since then, he's been traveling the country, showing how willing he is to throw dollars to get a vote. Apparently with no embarrassment at all, he's doing the same thing with itemized little actions that one associates with pork barrel. The aggregate econom ic impact will be very little." Bush is reversing his own policies

What's unusual about Bush's approach, Mr. White adds, is that while his positive voter impact will be very limited, Bush is reversing policies he has strongly adhered to, and in the process, he is complicating US relations abroad. "There is particular sensitivity over grain credits while the administration is busy trying to reach an international trade agreement. We're doing exactly what we're accusing the Europeans of doing." Even Bush's budget director, Richard Darman, has deemed the export- enhancemen t program expendable. He has twice offered its elimination as a way to slash the federal budget by several billion dollars from 1993 through 1997.

Republican strategist and economic forecaster Jeffrey Bell says Bush's micro-emphasis is misguided. "He won't win the election due to the F-16 sale or more wheat subsidies. The Bush campaign is making a mistake by adding up electoral votes in certain regions." The GOP has a much bigger, national problem to address, says Mr. Bell: to convince voters that Bush's second term will be different from his first term. "He has to do something for the nation as a whole. If he keeps doling out favors to pockets of the populations, voters will see it not as economic leadership but politics as usual." Bush tax-cut plan hasn't flown yet

The president's recent appeal to a wide spectrum of voters, with his Republican National Convention announcement of an across-the-board tax-cut plan, failed miserably, Bell says.

The White House shuns requests for details on just who would be affected by the reduction, by how much, and how it would be financed. With the backdrop of his reversal on his 1988 campaign pledge of "no new taxes," Bush's tax promises now lack credibility.

On the Houston pledge, Bell says, "with absolutely no follow-ups, it's as if he is vaguely ashamed of having mentioned it." The only thing that will save Bush from defeat is if he immediately informs the American public of a new national economic agenda, replete with a new group of economic leaders, Bell adds.

Lieber says Bush is saddled with "self-inflicted credibility problems." And the "polls show he hasn't had much success with a variety of appeals," he says. "It's not surprising that the electorate has not tuned in - we're looking at the worst economic performance in half a century." However broad-based the promises, skeptical voters don't believe the president can follow through, he says.

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