When George Bush coined the phrase "kinder, gentler nation," he likely didn't know it would catch on. And on, and on, and on.

In Detroit, road signs admonish motorists to be "kinder, gentler, safer." In Windsor, Ontario, a strip joint advertises itself as a "kinder, gentler adult entertainment center."Two weeks ago in Phoenix - one year after he was impeached for misusing funds and obstructing justice - former Gov. Evan Mecham vowed to run again and lead "a kindler, gentler Arizona."

And in South Carolina, Curt Whisennant has erected a billboard on U.S. 1 in Columbia advertising his ABCOE Plumbing Co. as a "kinder, gentler plumbing company."

That may not have been what the now-president Bush had in mind when he first used the phrase in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention last August.

The "kinder and gentler" saying and Bush's "thousand points of light" remark frequently have been lampooned by cartoonists and others who have poked fun at the attempt at presidential poetry.

But the phrase isn't without fans.

"I think it's probably going to be more successful than `Where's the Beef?' " said Charlie Claggett, chief creative officer for the advertising agency D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles in St. Louis.

"Where's the Beef" was the Wendy's hamburger restaurant slogan co-opted during a 1984 presidential debate by Walter Mondale against fellow Democrat Gary Hart.

"The trend today is toward neo-traditional values. When Bush made that speech, I thought, `This man is reading the same research we are.' And, of course, he is," Claggett said.

Even so, Claggett said, "I wouldn't dare go over to Anheuser-Busch and suggest they advertise a `kinder, gentler beer.' How kind and gentle can we be, anyway?"

The phrase "meets a desperate human need at a time when you can step out of your house in Washington, D.C., and get shot down by cocaine sellers," said Ray Browne, head of the popular culture department at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. "We're looking for something to save us from ourselves," he said. "It's a Madison Avenue phrase. I don't know who cooked it up, but it's tremendous."

It was Bush's idea, said B.J. Cooper, deputy White House press secretary. "It seemed to capture the kind of tone he wanted for his presidency. He's often joked about it. But he's also very well-defined what those two phrases are supposed to mean."

That's nonsense, said Browne. "This is more than a rhetorical honeymoon - it's a deliberate attempt to grab an element of human emotion and exploit it," he said.

Jack Mariutce, executive creative director for DDB Needham Worldwide in New York City, agreed: "Slogans like this are like Chinese food. They're good but they leave you hungry for something with more substance later."

Hungry or not, the phrase is finding varying degrees of usage in serious matters.

In February, U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh vowed to take a "rougher, tougher attitude" toward drug traffickers to achieve Bush's goal of a "kinder, gentler America."

And in New Orleans, students at Tulane and Loyola Universities wrote Bush that their attempts to rescue nine monkeys from a primate research center were their contributions to a "kinder, gentler nation."

When Arizona's Republicans passed a resolution last year declaring the United States a Christian nation, House Minority Leader Art Hamilton said Republicans probably misunderstood Bush and thought he had called for a kinder, more gentile nation.

Others, however, insist that "kinder and gentler" is completely overworked and should be avoided as the worst of cliches.

The phrase has been nominated for next year's Dishonour List of Words Banished from the English Language, compiled annually at Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., spokesman Bill Crawford said. Bush's "read my lips" quote made the 1989 list.