Ever the Competitor, Bush Goes Gunning for Support : Campaign: Even his annual hunting trip becomes a political exercise. As polls drop, the President makes the most of every event.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

First there was the annual--and normally routine--Christmas message to the nation: "Let there be no mistake," President Bush said, "my No. 1 priority is jobs and economic growth."

Then there was the hastily scheduled, nationally televised speech from the Oval Office on Christmas night, ostensibly to discuss the upheaval in Moscow: "These dramatic events come at a time when Americans are also facing challenges here at home. I know that, for many of you, these are difficult times and I want all Americans to know that I am committed to attacking our economic problems at home with the same determination we brought to winning the Cold War."

And Friday, before beginning an annual hunting trip, Bush took a detour to fly low over flood-ravaged Austin and San Antonio, then inspected some of the damage from high water near here on foot.

Whether delivering what otherwise would be merely a holiday greeting, talking to the nation about the drama that has brought to an end 74 years of communism in east Europe, or just going hunting, the President is trying to put a political Midas touch on all that he encounters.

Ever the competitor, Bush told an interviewer last week that the prospects of a reelection battle have only served to sharpen his interest in the fight. Thus, with poll ratings as chilly as the Texas brushland through which he tramped Friday in search of quail, the President is working assiduously to turn each day--on vacation, at home, or on tour in Asia as he will be next week--into an exercise in political combat.

Still, it is an unusual experience for Bush--this business of playing the scrapping underdog after so many months on top. To be sure, there is room for debate over the idea that Bush, after three years in the White House, is truly an underdog--regardless of the state of the economy and polls that for the first time show his approval rating at less than 50%.

Nevertheless, he and his aides are acting as though they believe it--or at least as though they believe that they are facing a campaign that no longer is an easy walk to the finish line.

Bush was last seen in this role four years ago, when he defeated Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) in the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary on the strength of a suddenly aggressive and carefully engineered performance. But since the 1988 presidential campaign, he has coasted along on often unprecedentedly high poll ratings until recently.

Thus, as hopes for recovery from the economic recession have been frustrated and voters have raised questions about the sincerity of the President's interest in their well-being, the tumble in Bush's poll ratings has left the White House in search of opportunities to demonstrate presidential empathy and to encourage optimism without appearing to be unrealistic.

"This is the first time (the President's staff has) had real adversity and they don't know how to deal with it," said one Republican political figure in Washington who frequently advises the White House.

What the White House is trying to do about all this, one official said, is to look carefully at the political impact of virtually everything the President does with an eye toward turning each event to his benefit. This reflects the effort, spearheaded by new White House Chief of Staff Samuel K. Skinner, to rebuild Bush's image in the weeks before his State of the Union address Jan. 28.

"There is a concerted effort to make sure people realize the President understands what's going on in terms of the economy and that that is his top priority," said the White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "As soon as he lets up, the critics start--as soon as he is perceived as caring more about foreign policy."

With concern for the future greater than at any time during Bush's tenure, the official said, the White House fears that the "America first" approach advocated by conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan--who has embarked on his own presidential campaign in New Hampshire--could find a warm reception among those who think Bush is devoting too many resources and too much attention to overseas problems at the expense of America's needs.

Thus, as he spoke to the nation in the highly unusual address from the Oval Office on Christmas night, Bush warned against the perils of "isolationism," and said: "A free and prosperous global economy is essential for America's prosperity. That means jobs and economic growth right here at home."

Similarly, when he landed Friday morning at Chase Field Naval Air Station in Beeville, Tex., approximately 60 miles northwest of Corpus Christi, he took pains to tell a local audience what had already been on the front page of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times that morning--that he had declared a major disaster in the state of Texas, because of severe thunderstorms and flooding during the last week. The step will make federal funds for rebuilding available in five counties.

Even the hunting expedition--a three-day weekend visit to the Lazy F Ranch owned by Bush financial adviser Will Farish--offered the President a political opportunity.

He interrupted what is primarily a private vacation to attend a barbecue at the Bee County Rodeo Arena, and speak to 1,500 citizens from Bee and Goliad counties, presenting them with a 25-minute retrospective of the dramas of 1991, from the war against Iraq to the fall of the hammer and sickle.

With a giant American flag for a backdrop and bales of hay forming a photogenic foreground to symbolize rural Americana, Bush said: "If you want to put it all in a wonderful year-end perspective . . . American leadership, American ideals, have literally reshaped the world we are living in."

And, after all those days on the golf course in Kennebunkport, Me., Bush had a little help from the local paper reminding Texans that--his Eastern roots aside--he is one of them, too.

Sandwiched between a two-line across-the-page headline touting the stock market's banner day Thursday ("Economic turnaround/Stock market breaks Dow, S&P;, NASDAQ records; recovery predicted") and the story about the President's declaration of flood aid, there were the recollections of 77-year-old Bill Weeks. Nearly every year since 1983, the paper said, Weeks has led Bush on quail-hunting expeditions here.

"When he goes hunting, he goes hunting," said Weeks, drawing a no-nonsense picture of an outdoorsman who means business. "He's not out there to just mess around. We've been out there when it's 16 or 18 degrees. He don't care. He's tough. He's just flat rough."

White House officials, grinning at the account, couldn't have been more pleased.

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