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Bush is in trouble and Arnold isn't helping

There are two unmistakable signs that President Bush faces serious political problems this year. One is the Schwarzenegger phenomenon and the other is the Shop 'n' Save factor. Together they spell trouble for the incumbent.

In hopes of injecting some energy into what was a notably lethargic campaign against conservative challenger Patrick Buchanan, the Bush operatives went to Hollywood for Arnold Schwarzenegger _ and got more than they bargained for. Accompanying Bush on his final campaign swing here Saturday, the Terminator star stirred much more excitement than the liberator of Kuwait could evoke.

Schwarzenegger, I'm told by associates of his in the film and political world, is on the same path that Ronald Reagan pioneered, aiming to become governor of California. But as a shill for Bush he has a fatal flaw.

Bush normally looks and sounds like a vigorous leader, but next to Schwarzenegger he _ like most mere mortals _ seemed a shrimp. And his message at the moment is notably limp.

For the thousands of New Hampshire voters angry and frustrated at the economic plight of their state, the answers Bush gave at his "town meeting" in the high school here were not very satisfactory.

The opening question _ a plea for relief from the tight regulations and strict bank lending policies that have forced so many home and business foreclosures _ brought forth a murky 312-word Bush answer:

"One thing we're trying to do is to relieve this credit crunch by doing a better job on regulation. We've called in all the regulators. We can't go back to forgiving bad practices; we're not going to do that. . . . The best answer . . . is trying to get these regulators to go forward and . . . take a hard look at the existing regulations, as we've done. . . . And so I'm optimistic these banks will begin to start making loans. . . . I think it's going to move in the right direction. On Fannie May, it's tough because those are independent and we can't snap our fingers and control them. . . . But credit crunch, it's hurt us. . . . One thing that's cost us and has hurt the deficit is the money that the government has had to put in to cover the depositors. One good thing is not one single depositor has lost money. And I'm determined to keep it that way. But I think this change in regulations is going to help."

Bush's answer reminded me of the Herblock carton in which an Eisenhower administration official said of a recession of that era: "It never existed. We killed it. And it went away."

My suspicion that Bush's reassurances weren't cutting it with voters here was confirmed Sunday afternoon in the parking lot of the Bedford Shop 'n' Save. The first voter I met was Peter Smith of Bedford, a traveling salesman. "Bush needs to pay a little more attention to the economy," he said. "He's pumping some help into New Hampshire now, but it's short-term, Band-Aid stuff, not long-term plans. I'm on the road a lot and we need to rebuild the infrastructure of this country."

The second was Carl Peterson, a retired Army major who said Bush "has not lived up to expectations." Indeed, Peterson was so vexed at reports that Bush was delaying the request for the part of his tax cut likely to help middle-income families that he called the office of Sen. Warren Rudman, R-N.H., to complain.

The third was Rita Szomodi of Manchester, a worker at the Velcro-USA factory, who said she was "off Bush, because something should have been done about this terrible economy long before this. He pays too much attention to foreign affairs and not enough to our own people's needs."

All three of these people voted for Bush last time. Szomodi, a registered Democrat, said she planned to vote for former Sen. Paul Tsongas who strikes her as "quiet, conservative, intelligent. I like Bush," she said, "and I love his wife _ but I'm a Democrat this time."

Peterson said he would vote for Bush "reluctantly," and only because "Pat Buchanan signed his name to things that show he's a racist and a bigot, and now he's trying to disown his own signature."

Smith said he finds Buchanan "interesting" but doubts he has "Bush's grasp of world politics." He planned to vote in the Republican primary Tuesday, but was uncertain whether it would be for Bush or Buchanan. And, "as a fellow-Dartmouth grad, I've got to say Tsongas makes the most sense."

Remember these three voters _ and the Schwarzenegger effect _ and you'll understand that George Bush has a real problem on his hands.

Washington Post Writers Group