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Bush stumbled predictably

A Bush strategist, evidently mystified, said, "He went up to New Hampshire and the bottom fell out." What's the mystery? Bush, becoming strident, incoherent and preposterous, finished this New Hampshire campaign flexing Arnold Schwarzenegger's muscles, whining about negative campaigning and misrepresenting his last New Hampshire campaign.

"I never did take the pledge," Bush said plaintively, referring to the no-new-taxes pledge in New Hampshire in 1988. There may be some pettifogging, hairsplitting sense in which Bush's claim is not technically false, but he repeatedly said he would not raise taxes and he won New Hampshire only because of his barrage of negative ads saying Bob Dole could not be trusted not to raise taxes.

Bush complaining about negative campaigning is a merriment. Never mind the Willie Horton/Pledge of Allegiance/Boston Harbor shelling of Dukakis, or the branding of Dole as "Senator Straddle" regarding taxes. But do remember the 1988 press release in which Bush's Iowa campaign suggested Elizabeth Dole was corrupt. (When a livid Dole asked Bush if he authorized it, Vice President Straddle said maybe I did and maybe I didn't.)

Bush probably will beat Buchanan, as Ford beat Reagan in 1976 and Carter beat Kennedy in 1980. But by November, Bush may be as bedraggled as Carter was in 1980. Lots of people were prepared to vote for Carter, but few felt any passion. Reagan understood that he would win if he were seen as a plausible alternative to the incumbent for whom few felt enthusiasm. Today, both Tsongas and Clinton probably could pass the presidential threshold test with a majority of voters.

Bush has lost not only a substantial minority of Republicans, he has lost almost all of the minority that matters most, the conservatives who make up the base for any Republican president.

Some conservatives will grit their teeth and stick with Bush because they dread having Buchanan defining conservatism. But many more conservatives may soon believe it is better for their fighting faith to be in opposition than in power Bush's way _ in disarray that discredits conservatism. And they are not apt to be brought back into the fold by fear of Tsongas, or even of Clinton.

Clinton finished a strong enough second to say jauntily, "See you down South, Paul." He can still hope _ absent any new embarrassment _ to be the first sitting governor elected president since FDR in 1932.

Consider some numbers cited by John Pitney of Claremont College: Since the Democrats' first convention in 1832, no Democrat has won the White House without carrying a majority of southern states. Non-southern Democratic nominees have lost 62 percent of the time; southern Democrats have won 83 percent of the time.

Finally, Mario Cuomo may at last have gone too far while going nowhere. Cuomo went to Harvard, in New Hampshire's television range, to encourage the write-in campaign on his behalf, all the while saying, "I wouldn't presume to interfere with the good people of New Hampshire." He got 3 percent. He didn't interfere.

Washington Post Writers Group

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