Bush looks for trump card in a bad hand: Patrick Cockburn in Washington on the President's morals problem as the Republicans try to boost their flagging campaign. And (below) Bill Clinton's bandwagon rolls in Pittsburgh

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WHEN George Bush met the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, at the President's house at Kennebunkport in Maine last week, the only sign of discord was offshore, where followers of Meir Kahane - the Israeli extreme-rightist assassinated in 1990 - were demonstrating from boats.

Mr Bush watched their actions through his binoculars with keen interest. According to a senior Israeli official, who was present, the President, having studied the demonstrators for some moments, suddenly said in surprise: 'Look, look, there's Kahane protesting in the boats - I thought this guy was kind of dead.'

The latest Bushism created much mirth among the Israeli officials accompanying Mr Rabin. They thought Mr Bush might have been misled by the protest group's name, Kahane Chai - 'Kahane Lives' in Hebrew.

Or maybe his mind was on other, more pressing, domestic matters. The meeting with Mr Rabin, ending the two-year row between Washington and the Israeli government, should have been a moment of genuine triumph for Mr Bush, bringing him some electoral benefits. Instead, questions of morality overshadowed his week.

The president continued to be dogged by the issue of abortion. And the New York Post published a story claiming to have substantiated old rumours of Mr Bush's affair with his former chief assistant, Jennifer Fitzgerald.

The Post's story was thin, based on a second-hand tale originally told by Louis Fields, the late US ambassador to disarmament talks in Geneva, where he said he had arranged a cottage for Mr Bush and Ms Fitzgerald to stay together in adjoining rooms in 1984. The implication of illicit relations in rustic secrecy was diminished when it emerged that the cottage was in fact Chateau de Bellerive, owned by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, where Mr Bush had stayed before.

Nothing in the ramblings of the deceased diplomat were new, and it is doubtful if there is much about Mr Bush's infidelities to be discovered. The most elaborate investigation of rumours of the President's womanising, past and present, appeared in the July-August issue of New York- based Spy magazine, entitled: '1,000 reasons for not voting for George Bush. No 1: He cheats on his wife.' But here too, once past the headline, there was more rumour than evidence.

Not that Mr Bush deserved much sympathy, since, for all his public distancing of himself from sleaze, his staff continued to keep stories of Governor Clinton's womanising on the boil. This may have a cumulative effect, but the fact that Mr Clinton survived the original story of his affair with Gennifer Flowers during the Democratic primaries may have have inoculated him against damage from any further revelations.

Indeed, one of the lessons of the weeks since the Democratic Convention started on 13 July is that Mr Clinton is, tactically, more astute than anybody supposed, with the added advantage that Republicans consistently underestimate him. As early as May a Republican official was saying of him: 'With absolutely no help from us he's looking as Mike Dukakis did in 1988 after we had done with him. Nobody has ever seen a presidential candidate with negatives this high at this stage in the campaign.'

In fact, Republican jubilation turned out to be premature and, so far, the Republican campaign staff, looking for a repeat of the 1988 election, has tended to wander into its own minefields. The attempt to focus on values rather than issues, the strategy that worked against Mr Dukakis, looks evasive when people wonder how Mr Bush will revive the economy.

Will all this change with James Baker in charge of the Republican campaign after his move from the State Department? After four years as President, Americans have a better idea of Mr Bush's personality and policies. Any new policies introduced in Houston will attract Democratic catcalls recalling Mr Bush's pledge in New Orleans not to raise taxes.

They will not find it easy to trump Mr Clinton convincingly by promising action on health, education and jobs. According to the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll published on Friday, 41 per cent of voters believe Mr Clinton would do a better job than Mr Bush in handling the economy. Only 19 per cent think Mr Bush would perform better - the first time Democrats have been ahead of Republicans on economic issues in a presidential election since 1976, which was also the last time they won.

Equally dangerous for Mr Bush is that it is too late for him to distance himself from his past embrace of Ronald Reagan and the Republican right. Last week he had to intervene to prevent the framers of the Republican platform denouncing his decision to raise taxes in 1990. His own pronouncements on how he would respond to his daughter's hypothetical desire for an abortion sounded extraordinarily like proffering her the choice that his party is committed to denying everybody else.

And just as the anti-abortion plank was being inserted in the Republican platform at the convention in Houston this week, Mrs Bush said no firm statement about abortion belonged there.

Barry Goldwater, Republican presidential candidate in 1964 and a continuing icon of the right, said that the anti-choice Republican stance would lose them the election. And there is no question it hurts them in prosperous suburbs. In fact, abortion remains easy to obtain in the US, except for poor, black women who cannot pay for it any longer because of the withdrawal of federal funds.

Hurt by morals issues, Mr Bush might still be saved by foreign policy. But the administration clearly does not want to intervene militarily in Bosnia-Herzegovina. And, judging by Mr Rabin's visit last week, a breakthrough in Middle East peace negotiations will have limited resonance.

The only glimmer of hope for Mr Bush abroad is that Saddam Hussein apparently also sees himself as a participant in the presidential election. Emulating Ayatollah Khomeini's role in the defeat of Jimmy Carter in 1980, he wants to contribute to the political end of George Bush. Given President Saddam's tendency to exaggerate his own strength, he might ignite a crisis that would save, rather than destroy, the Bush presidency. But, without some stroke of luck, it is difficult to see how else it will escape its troubles.

(Photograph omitted)