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What Could Stop Clinton



The cheers from Madison Square Garden had barely stopped when Democratic Presidential nominee Bill Clinton and his running mate, Al Gore, boarded the bus for tomorrow. On July 17, the duo was set to lead a motley caravan headed for the heartland: Mount Holly, N.J.; Utica, Ohio; Evansville, Ind.; and Vandalia, Ill., each a small-town pocket of America that lies off the interstate -- and off the political road map of traditional Democrats.

Clinton's ultimate stop, Democrats hope, is 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. And after the July 13-17 lovefest in New York City -- one of the most unified conventions in memory -- they have reason for optimism. Clinton has vaulted past independent Ross Perot and edged ahead of President Bush in some polls. More important, his centrist message seems to be registering with middle-class voters weary of Bush's ineffectual economic leadership (page 30 22 ). "This election is about putting power back in your hands," Clinton said in remarks prepared for delivery on July 16. "It's about putting people first."

It would be easy to get carried away by the Democrats' well-choreographed political pageant. Featuring a shimmering white podium framed by a bank of high-tech video screens, the show was so seamless that at times it seemed more like a scene from the Country Music Assn. awards than a typically anarchic Democratic convention. But in reality, Clinton and Gore will have to fight hard to prevent their glittering New York production from bombing on the road. Here's why:

-- Even though President Bush is on the ropes (page 28), he remains a formidable opponent with all the powers of incumbency. When they gather next month in Houston, Republicans will try to shred Democrats' claim that they have broken with their "tax and spend" past. Exhibit A: Clinton's economic plan, which raises taxes on the wealthy and foreign corporations by $ 150 billion and targets $ 200 billion for spending on infrastructure and investment incentives.

-- Denied the economy as an issue, Republicans will subject Clinton to a brutal negative assault. Thanks to the furor over his alleged extramarital affairs, experiments with marijuana, and draft evasion, Clinton has given GOP commandos plenty of openings. Republicans will roll out a variation of their 1988 Boston Harbor number: Clinton will be cast as the "failed governor" of a backwater state, an attack that could undermine his claims to be a credible agent of economic change. Vows a senior Bush strategist: "This campaign is going to get rough and tough."

-- Despite the show of unity in New York, Clinton could face problems energizing his Democratic base. Some core constituencies, notably blacks and liberals, are furious over Clinton's rough handling of Jesse Jackson and his lurch toward the political center. Says Howard University political science professor Ronald Walters, a key Jackson adviser: "Clinton's strategy risks turning off the black vote, and it isn't winning the white vote." A hint of future trouble: Black turnout was off sharply in the primaries. Without an enthusiastic black vote, Clinton and Gore have no chance of breaking through in the South and capturing key Northern industrial states.

-- To a huge extent, the two essential elements of a Democratic victory remain outside of Clinton's control. He needs the economy to stay spongy right up to November. That would ensure a debate centered on Bush's record rather than Clinton's character. The other concern is Perot's waning strength, underscored on July 15 by the abrupt departure of campaign Co-Chairman Edward J. Rollins. Because of the GOP's strong base in the South and West, few analysts think Clinton could best Bush in a two-way race. The Democrats want Perot to hang in, peeling off at least 15% of Bush's support. "Clinton needs Perot to split the white vote with Bush," says Earl Black, a University of South Carolina political scientist.

Perot's presence in the race is a mixed blessing, though, because a three-way struggle makes Clinton's strategy vastly more complicated. Clinton now has to puzzle out a shifting electoral map in which some states that are leaning Democratic could drift out of Clinton's reach, while formerly hostile states offer intriguing opportunities (map). "No one's been any good at figuring out how to run a campaign under these conditions," says James Carville, Clinton's senior political strategist. "We're all flying by the seat of the pants."

If Clinton is to win in November, he'll have to do well outside of traditional Democratic bastions in the Northeast. Here's the outlook, region by region.

-- The Northeast. The Southern-fried combination of Clinton and Gore has run into a cultural wall in New York and New England. But the region's economic woes should drive many voters back to the Democrats. "Believe it or not, but we're actually close right now in New Hampshire," says Clinton pollster Stanley Greenberg. "That's because the whole region feels like a Third World basket case."

-- The Heartland. "The industrial Midwest is the real battleground," says Republican pollster Ed Goeas. The Rust Belt took its economic hit in the 1980s and has escaped the worst of the current recession. Partly because the region has fared relatively well, Clinton's economic plan has yet to dazzle Midwesterners. Perot's get-tough trade policy, by contrast, plays well with Michigan auto workers. And Ohio has become solid GOP territory. But the Democrats have a good shot in Illinois. Clinton's pledge to restore "high-wage, high-skill" manufacturing jobs will help with voters there.

-- Song of the South. You might think that the Democrats' "double Bubba" ticket would play well in Dixie. But the Deep South, anchored by Florida and South Carolina, remains Bush's strongest region. A recent Mason-Dixon Poll found that Clinton had the backing of only one in five Southern whites. Clinton and Gore have better prospects on their home ground in the mid-South. "If Perot stays at 15%, most of the South will be competitive," says pollster Greenberg. "The Democrats are dreaming," snaps GOP Southern operative Haley Barbour.

-- The West. Westerners have always had a visceral dislike of the preppy Bush. "They smell the East in him," says Paul Tully, political director for the Democratic National Committee. Up to now, Perot has been the biggest beneficiary of the region's rawhide populism, but Clinton is coming on. The Arkansan still has no chance in most Rocky Mountain states. But California, with 54 electoral votes, is the real prize. "If we don't win California, we don't win," says Clinton campaign Chairman Mickey Kantor. Gore (page 29) should improve Clinton's chances there and in the Northwest.

Although Clinton's electoral path is treacherous, he starts the last leg with the best prospects of any recent Democratic challenger. Four years of economic stagnation have eroded Bush's support. A virulent mood of anti-incumbent anger cuts against the President. And growing concern about abortion rights could cost Bush the support of independent and Republican women. "The President hasn't crossed the threshold to defeat yet," says a top Administration official. "But he's getting close."

Close is not good enough for Democrats, who have seen many a post-convention jump in the polls fade under a withering GOP assault on their core values. Elated with their New York triumph, Clinton and Gore are campaigning with abandon. But they have miles to go and many crises to weather before they can swap their tour bus for first-class seats on Air Force One.Lee Walczak, Richard S. Dunham, Douglas Harbrecht, and Howard Gleckman, with Susan B. Garland and Christina Del Valle, in New York

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