Bush offers little but hope and promises

'THE SPEECH' is now history and the battle has begun. But the hour-long oration George Bush delivered on Thursday night to a Houston Astrodome packed to its curving steel-beamed roof contained a host of clues to his match- up with Bill Clinton, and to both the triumph and the disaster which might await him when the votes are counted just 73 days hence.

By Mr Bush's recent standards it was a thunderous success. Never is he more dangerous than when in a corner. Gone was the listless, dispirited occupant of the White House, unable to comprehend his stunning fall from grace. The man on the podium was a politician reborn, and the party faithful responded. But just like Mr Bush the President, 'the speech' on closer examination was a thing of two contrasting halves.

The first was Bush the statesman his image makers drool over. Interrupted by deafening applause at almost every line, he sketched out his foreign policy triumphs, raising doubts about Governor Clinton's character which the Republicans will play for all they're worth in the weeks ahead.

Devastatingly, the President played on Mr Clinton's equivocations on the Gulf war. 'What about the leader of the Arkansas National Guard,' Mr Bush scathingly (if incorrectly) referred to his opponent, 'the man who hopes to be Commander-in-Chief? While I bit the bullet, he bit his nails.'

Alas, however, the issues of this campaign are above all domestic, and on that score Mr Bush had little to offer beyond old nostrums, vague promises and re-tread Reaganite optimism. The question was whether he could sketch out a vision of where he wanted to lead the country. For all the assaults on Mr Clinton, and the blame he heaped on the Democrat-controlled Congress, it remains largely unanswered. Into the euphoria intrudes one sombre, over-arching fact. This election will be decided by the economy, and no president this century running on so wretched a record of economic achievement has won a second term.

Adroitly, Mr Bush portrayed himself as the born-again tax-cutter, blaming his 'bad call' in accepting the 1990 tax increase package on the bad faith of the Democratic majority on Capitol Hill. By definition, Mr Clinton becomes another in a long line of liberal, tax-and-spend Democratic contenders for the White House.

Just as the Democratic President who 44 years ago achieved this century's most astonishing election upset by running against a bitterly unpopular legislature, Mr Bush will be 'giving 'em hell' across the country. By his own account, he feels liberated by his underdog role and is spoiling for the fight.

'I'm going to pound them,' he said as he took his leave of Republican National Committee leaders yesterday before a campaign swing through the South. 'I'll go into a Congressional district and I'll do exactly what Harry Truman did. 'I'll say: 'You have the worst Congressman I know. You think he's a nice guy, but he's terrible.' I'm going to single them out, just as they've been singling me out for the last three and a half years, and I'm going to link Gore and Clinton to that.'

Thus has a party been galvanised, and the poll ratings of its candidate - briefly at least - have surged. But the revelry and rhetoric of Houston have not altered the logic of the battle ahead. No current statistical indicator, and certainly nothing Mr Bush could offer in his acceptance speech, holds the promise of economic recovery between now and November.

His proposals on health care and cutting the bureaucracy were nothing new: his 'brand new idea' that taxpayers have the right to earmark up to 10 per cent of their payments for the reduction of the national debt is little more than a gimmick. Even the 'across the board' tax cuts he will propose when the new Congress convenes next January are conditional on specific spending reductions, almost certainly in health and welfare entitlements, which the White House last night could save up to dollars 300bn ( pounds 155bn) a year.

The initiative will delight his party's conservative wing, but there is small sign Americans are ready to accept such medicine. To win, Mr Bush must convince his countrymen that slippery Mr Clinton does not measure up to the job: that he, the Second World War hero and cool-nerved conqueror of Saddam Hussein, the good family man, alone can be trusted. If not, as Republicans have privately confessed all week, economic dissatisfaction will carry the Democrats to victory. It is a logic which will dictate a campaign as rough as any in memory.

Leading article, page 14

(Photograph omitted)