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Bush turns to Barbara for campaign help

IF GEORGE BUSH cannot turn this election around, perhaps Barbara can. Groping for ways to stem the Democratic advance, the White House has persuaded the First Lady to take a prime-time slot at next month's Republican convention.

Mrs Bush, who still scores very highly in the polls in spite of the collapsed popularity of her husband, is expected to speak for about 20 minutes about the Republican Party's attachment to 'family values' on the third night of the convention, with all her children and grandchildren surrounding her.

The drafting of the First Lady comes as the Bush-Quayle campaign is struggling frantically to re-energise their ticket and reverse the continuing surge of the Democratic rival, Bill Clinton. At the same time it finds itself struggling every day to squelch rumours of White House disarray and reassure frustrated Republican Party members that all will be well in the end.

As part of the counter-offensive, President Bush is to forego most of his annual summer break at his Kennebunkport home in Maine and will remain in Washington in the week before the convention, being held on 17-20 August. Handlers had advised him that television pictures of him fishing and playing golf while Mr Clinton barnstorms around the country would hardly be helpful.

Yesterday, the President headed off on the trail to Texas and thence to California, both normally considered must-win states for the Republicans to secure the White House. However, a poll this week showing Mr Bush trailing Mr Clinton by 34 points in California has sparked renewed speculation, even among Republicans, that the state may soon be out of the President's reach. 'It's still not too late for him to win California, but we're rapidly getting to that point,' a Republican strategist, Steve Merkasmer, said.

Bush staff, meanwhile, seem to be having little success in settling nerves among Republican members of Congress who see their own political fortunes slipping down with the President's. After hearing a pep-talk from the campaign manager, Fred Malek, some members complained of a 'policy vacuum' in the campaign and admitted that the feeling among them was 'beyond depression and worse than despondent'.

Echoing the growing sense of panic among most Republicans on the Hill, Vin Weber, a Minnesota Representative, said the reception given to Mr Malek by his colleagues had been 'very, very tough'. He added that 'members are beginning to see the impact of the national polls on their own states. It should not have surprised them, but it is one thing to say there is a hurricane coming. It is another to see your basement flooding.'

The Bush campaign is moreover still being bedevilled by calls for the removal from the ticket of Vice-President Dan Quayle, in spite of statements that his place on it remains 'certain'. A full- page advertisement was placed in the Washington Post yesterday by a former chairman of the Florida Republican Party, urging Mr Quayle to quit. 'Please, Vice- President Quayle, step aside for America', ran the headline.

The advertisement was dismissed by Quayle aides as irrelevant and a 'colossal waste of money'. White House officials in general, meanwhile, have taken to branding members of their own party expressing doubts about Mr Bush's chances in November variously as 'nervous Nellies', 'gutless wonders' and 'goofballs'.

At once irrelevant but also deeply indicative of the plight of the President are the first public suggestions from conservative sympathisers that perhaps the only way forward is for him to withdraw from the race and allow the convention to revert to its original role of selecting the candidate.

In a Washington Post column that drew much attention on Wednesday, the respected conservative commentator, George Will, strongly made the case for Mr Bush to bow out. Mr Bush, he argued, had become a 'figure of genuine pathos' at the head of an administration that had grown 'tired and arrogant'. If Mr Bush withdrew, the Clinton-Gore bandwagon would be eclipsed until after the Republican convention.

(Photograph omitted)