Having served as Ronald Reagan's chief pollster in three presidential campaigns, Richard B. Wirthlin has impeccable credentials as a loyal Republican.
But in the 1988 campaign for the GOP nomination, with Reagan out of the running, Wirthlin sided with Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, chief rival to Vice President George Bush, and that may help explain why he is publicly more skeptical of Bush's chances for succeeding Reagan than most other Republican loyalists.
"I think Bush is behind (Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis) at this point," Wirthlin told Washington reporters Friday.
Wirthlin said that during his successful campaign for the nomination Bush had improved more as "a candidate than anybody I am familiar with." But he asserted that Bush's advisers "do need to adopt a more independent course for the vice president," as opposed to campaigning in Reagan's shadow, "and they need to do that relatively soon."
As for Reagan, Wirthlin said that if the President "was five years younger he would have an excellent chance of being reelected."
Then Wirthlin added: "Of course, he is passing all of that political strength on to Bush" with his "unequivocal strong endorsements."
That remark, which drew laughter, was a sarcastic reference to Reagan's long-awaited endorsement of Bush delivered Wednesday night, which many Republicans thought of as surprisingly unenthusiastic.