“Wait a minute,” the President of the United States said. “The new beginning is only 7 1/2 years old. Look at how America has changed. We are the change.”
And so began Ronald Reagan’s campaign to elect George Bush as his successor.
Reagan was sitting in the Oval Office one day in June with his longtime pollster, Richard B. Wirthlin, and White House Chief of Staff Kenneth M. Duberstein when Wirthlin began going over the results of his latest surveys indicating that the voters of America were ready for a change--results that would not bode well for the Republican presidential candidate after two Reagan terms.
The news came at a time when Michael S. Dukakis, the prospective Democratic presidential nominee, was faring considerably better in the polls than he is today.
The President’s remarks became a central theme not only of his own efforts on Bush’s behalf, but of Bush’s public speeches, at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans in August, and on the campaign trail each day as well.
From the days back in May when Reagan’s clumsy endorsement of Bush’s candidacy was seen as a lukewarm pat on the back, the President has emerged, in the eyes of the Bush campaign, as a key asset.
Reagan, in the waning days of his presidency, has become Bush’s No. 1 surrogate, used much as a vice presidential candidate: one who can gain local news coverage in each community he visits, targeting his appearances to important and closely contested states, and help with fund-raising appeals.
Day-in and day-out, senior White House officials and their counterparts at the Bush campaign headquarters about 4 blocks from the executive mansion speak with each other, generally by telephone, to make sure each team is aware of what the other is doing.
Avoiding Mixed Signals
Their goal each day: to avoid sending mixed signals and any surprises on the part of the White House that could upset the Bush operation.
“I’m linking in regularly” with senior White House officials, said a senior Bush campaign staff member. “That allows us to coordinate what’s going on at the White House and make sure we’re not doing things out of sync.”
For example, when Reagan vetoed the initial 1989 defense authorization bill on Aug. 3, “we knew Bush was getting ready to give a big defense speech,” a senior White House official said.
The President, seeking to draw a contrast between Dukakis’ preference for lower spending on the “Star Wars” missile defense program and Bush’s support for the research effort, complained that the spending plan did not sufficiently fund the Strategic Defense Initiative, the program’s formal name. As a result, the tough approach to defense issues that was the heart of Bush’s message was reinforced by Reagan’s action.
And, it was Reagan, two days after Dukakis accepted the Democratic presidential nomination, who introduced what has become a central message of Bush’s campaign--the painting of Dukakis as a liberal.
“The President has had a lot to do with defining Dukakis as a liberal,” said a senior White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Right now, everyone takes it as a given that Dukakis is a liberal.”
At the same time, the official said, “he’s also putting his arm all the way around George Bush’s shoulder, saying, ‘This is my man.’ ”
To some extent, an active White House schedule this autumn, although not running at the pace of previous years, has kept Reagan on the nation’s front pages, and a busy congressional calendar has helped provide a role for him.
Gary Bauer, a senior White House domestic policy adviser, credits the continuing White House agenda for helping to maintain Reagan’s popularity.
“Just as everybody expected President Reagan to fall off a cliff, his approval rating is up 10 percentage points,” he said. “Defying expectations, the President is on center stage.”
Typically, Reagan is being used by the Bush campaign to solidify support among the “Reagan Democrats"--often times ethnic voters who have backed Democratic candidates in the past but who helped give Reagan his overwhelming margins in 1980 and 1988.
Thus, he campaigned two weeks ago in a neighborhood of Chicago populated by Eastern European immigrants and their descendants, and last week he visited a community north of Detroit that has grown with the flight of whites from that city. On Wednesday, he addressed students and faculty at a high school in a well-to-do suburb of Philadelphia, and then spoke at an Italian-American dinner in New Jersey.
Policies Would Continue
It is to such groups that the President promises that Bush will continue the Reagan Administration policies into the next decade.
“He is helping us carry that message very well,” focusing on “national defense, family values and pocketbook issues,” the senior Bush campaign aide said.
Still, interviews with some participants at the campaign events indicate that the motivating force behind the enthusiasm of the crowds he has drawn is the opportunity to see Reagan, rather than hear about Bush.
“People were worried about whether our troops would get motivated,” said one senior White House official. So the campaign is dispatching Reagan “to those constituencies where Bush might not be so strong.”
“It is all crafted to put Reagan into places, saying things that appeal to people who have always supported him,” in an effort to transfer that popularity to Bush, the Bush assistant said.
To a large extent, the President’s early political schedule after the Republican National Convention was mapped out in close consultation with the Bush staff in late August, with specific dates and likely targets worked into both his calendar and the strategic plans of the Bush campaign.
While Reagan has generally left Washington for campaign events in the East and Midwest about once a week since Labor Day, his schedulers plan to increase that pace to about two days a week in the remaining four weeks of the campaign.
Staff writer Lee May contributed to this story.