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This was electronic war: George Bush vs. the Gipper.

Even for a man with a secure personality and the highest approval ratings of any postwar American president, Bush has one ghost nagging at his heels.

Each time he goes on prime-time television, he's compared to Ronald Reagan.

And Reagan -- memories of the Gipper's artful, aw-shucks TV masterpieces -- always wins. Big.

One overlooked facet of Bush's persona is his competitiveness. He hates to lose. And he loves secrets and surprises.

But when Bush's speechwriters tried to concoct some State of the Union rhetoric that wouldn't put 50 million Americans into a deep narcolepsy, they were stumped.

Bush needed some chunk of news so dramatic it would divert critics from the usual condescending putdown: "Yeah, nice speech. . .but he's no Reagan."

He found his show-stopper. He'd spring the idea of reducing U.S. and Soviet troops in Europe to 195,000. He kept this nugget a secret for 10 days. Then, to hype the drama, Bush had himself photographed telephoning the offer to Mikhail Gorbachev.

Bush's offer was hardly daring. Most Eastern European countries wanted the Soviet troops out, period. James Schlesinger, the hawkish ex-defense secretary, said the troop levels could be slashed to 100,000.

But when Bush walked down the House aisle Wednesday night, laughing and pressing the flesh, he was as buoyant as a gambler playing with a fixed deck.

To tell the truth, he delivered a good speech by one standard -- the Bush-vs.-Reagan contest. Bush unloaded 35 minutes of upbeat, cockeyed, flag-waving, rosy-eyed optimism that matched Dr. Feelgood in his prime.

And with just as much substance.

From the moment Bush boasted, "Panama is free," and announced the U.S. conquistadors would be home before this month ends, the Honorables loved it. They gave him six standing ovations, matching their effusions for Reagan.

Like Reagan, Bush made glorious vows with no price tags. Clean air! Child care! Plant a billion trees! Educate every American adult! (Never mind that his budget adds only 2 percent for education.)

"I thought Rosy Scenario was dead," grumped veteran Rep. J.J. Pickle, D-Texas, "but she's raised her head again."

TV cameras missed half the scene. Three times when Bush got rousing ovations from Republicans -- on lowering capital gains taxes, on Social Security and on "no new taxes" -- Democrats sat on their hands. Once Bush rolled his eyes in mock despair.

When he got to his kicker, though -- "the United States must be a catalyst for peaceful change" -- and announced the European troop cuts, Bush was home free. Democratic lions -- Sen. Ted Kennedy, Rep. Les Aspin, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski -- were up applauding. How could they not?

A master stroke, all right. Bush's troop-cut gimmick throttled usual Democrat gripes. "Just when you thought you had a Cold War budget -- boom! I'm delighted," said Rep. Pat Schroeder, D-Colo.

Reagan never had the chutzpah to wind up a big-time TV performance with a plea that folks "go home tonight" and read a story to their kids. Corny? Pure Bush.

So how did the Bush-vs.-the-Gipper contest go?

Well, for empty, pumped-up, cheerful, jingoistic flapdoodle, I'd say Bush got a tie. For once George Bush muted those patronizing words:

". . .but he's no Reagan."

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