Why did George W. Bush last week cite Robert H. Bork as the horrible example of Republican negativism? Was it to separate himself from Judge Bork and social conservatives? Or was it just plain incompetence? Almost surely the latter was the case.

"Too often," Gov. Bush declared in his education reform speech at the Manhattan Institute Oct. 5, "on social issues, my party has painted an image of America slouching toward Gomorrah." Bork's 1996 book, "Slouching Towards Gomorrah," depicts a "corrupted" America resembling the biblical city of sin. Nobody in Bush's inner circle blue-penciled those three words, but they now argue they failed to perceive the disrespect paid a conservative icon.

Republicans opposing Bush for president have rolled their eyes. Such a blunder seems improbable for the juggernaut that has propelled the governor of Texas to the verge of his party's nomination. His rising poll ratings since the speech suggest a clever plot. But in truth, the incident exposes flaws in the rookie candidate and his organization.

The heart of Bush's speech proposed innovative, conservative school reforms crafted by Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, but contained three rhetorical flourishes decrying negative conservatism -- a familiar theme of the governor. The impact of the speech was heightened because it followed, by a few days, an unconnected furor over Bush's describing a congressional Republican accounting gimmick as balancing the budget "on the backs of the poor" (though the New York presentation was written weeks earlier).

The news media focused on the flourishes and largely ignored the reforms. Bush domestic policy adviser Goldsmith conceded to me the campaign might better have offered a straight educational speech.

Nothing in Bush's speech is really outside the conservative mainstream. Its notoriety lies with the words "slouching toward Gomorrah," described by presidential rival Gary Bauer as a "gratuitous slap" at Bork. Jeffrey Bell, Bauer's chief strategist and an insightful analyst, calls it a conscious assault on Bork and social conservatives.

That was the analysis of Bork himself, who, in high dudgeon, shredded Bush. Many Democrats agree. President Clinton apparently considered Bush's gambit so clever that he hastened to argue that the governor is just a disguised soldier in the "far right."

But why trash Bork? True, Bork's prognosis is too pessimistic for many conservatives, including Jeff Bell. Nevertheless, he is the right's hero-martyr who, because of 1986 election returns and Democratic vindictiveness, was kept from a Supreme Court seat that would have led to overturning the Roe v. Wade abortion decision. Voters who don't like Bob Bork are not Republicans and are unlikely ever to vote for one.

Mike Gerson, the speechwriter who added the flourishes to Goldsmith's policy proposals, knew very well he was referring to Bork but, according to his associates, was "horrified" by the reaction. "In retrospect, it was a mistake," Gerson told me. Why did he do it? "I was not thinking," he replied, adding he was seeking "vivid language" to show that Bush was abandoning negative thinking. He has written a "private" letter of apology to Bork, which he said describes himself as "a fan" of the judge. "Bork is a hero who has taken many arrows," Bush strategist Karl Rove told me.

I have talked to five people who reviewed Gerson's speech, and three did not recognize "slouching" as a Bork book title -- and Bush himself probably can be added to that list. That is not so preposterous considering that front-page stories in The Washington Post and the New York Times, written under deadline pressure and published the morning after the speech, mentioned "slouching" without a connection to Bork.

Bell's further argument that Bush's "attack" on Bork attempted to distance him from the social conservatives conflicts with the candidate's actual strategy of courting them. "He is a social conservative," said Rove. Four days after his New York speech, Bush engaged in a love fest in San Antonio with the social conservative elite: members of the Council on National Policy.

Democrats and Democratic-inclined journalists consider the New York speech a masterstroke that put Bush in the ideological center on the assumption that the nomination already is his. That movement was indeed the upshot of his education speech, but the execution was unnecessarily sloppy and risky. With a second chance, the Bush campaign might worry less about vivid rhetoric.

(C) 1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.