Where Perot's Chips May Fall

Against the counsel of many of his advisers, Bill Clinton decided to keep his Presidential campaign headquarters in Little Rock. Perhaps Battle Creek, Mich., would have been a better choice.

Thanks to the abrupt end of Ross Perot's candidacy, Clinton will be forced to spend a lot less time in his native South and a lot more touring the Rust Belt. Democrats had counted on Perot to strip votes from President Bush, allowing Clinton to carry states in the South and West. Now, Clinton, who casts his candidacy as a break from the Democratic past, must dust off a more traditional Democratic battle plan that relies on the Rust Belt and California.

That's a fight Republicans relish. "Clinton's people were preparing for a three-dimensional chess game. Now, the game is boxing," says GOP consultant Jay Severin III. "This is a game we know how to win."

But knowing how to win isn't the same as winning. Although Clinton's post-convention surge in the polls will subside, Republicans were taken aback by the Democrat's 29-point lead in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll. Even more disturbing was evidence that up to two-thirds of Perot voters were leaning toward Clinton. Still, the calculus of the Electoral College favors the Republicans because GOP strength in the Sunbelt gives the party a leg up on the 270 electoral votes needed for victory.

A BUSINESS WEEK analysis suggests that once the Clinton balloon deflates a bit, Bush has the edge in states with a total of 263 electoral votes. Clinton has the inside track on 233 votes, and 42 more are toss-ups. "The Clinton people are keenly aware that it's a tough race," says Democratic consultant Wendy Sherman. "They don't have any illusions that this is a cakewalk."

The GOP is giving Clinton a taste of things to come with assaults ranging from charges that his proposed tax hikes on the wealthy will soon hit middle-class voters to innuendoes about his ties to homosexual activists. Their immediate goal: peel away the Perot supporters who have flocked to Clinton's banner.

Perot's departure alters the campaign outlook by putting some states into play for Clinton that otherwise would have been beyond his reach, while moving other states firmly into the Bush camp. A tour of the regions:

-- The South. It's nearest to home that Perot's withdrawal hurts Clinton the most. The Arkansas governor had hoped to eke out narrow victories with the solid backing of blacks and pro-choice women while Bush and Perot split the white male vote. "With Perot skimming the cream off the Republican vote, Clinton had a real opportunity to take the South," says Democratic consultant Raymond D. Strother. Now, Clinton has only an outside shot at Texas and virtually no chance in Florida.

-- The West Coast. California, Oregon, and Washington remain hostile territory for Bush. Clinton's stock has soared since he chose environmentalist Al Gore as his running mate. And at least for the time being, Clinton appears to have inherited many of Perot's independent-leaning and suburban supporters.

-- The Rocky Mountain States. What was once Perot's strongest region is now a Bush bastion. Clinton could snare Colorado and New Mexico, with their large Latino populations, but elsewhere, prospects look bleak.

-- The Northeast. Post-convention polls show Clinton getting his biggest boost in this traditionally Democratic region. Perot's departure clearly helps Clinton in New York and Pennsylvania. But Bush gains in New Jersey, which hasn't voted Democratic in a Presidential election since 1964.

-- The Industrial Midwest. Clinton is counting on a weak economy for victory here. Republicans hope to turn Gore's environmentalism into a liability, arguing that his policies would cripple automotive and other manufacturing jobs. Says Democratic pollster Anna Bennett: "It's going to be a real shoot-out to the end."

The importance of the Rust Belt was reflected in the itinerary for Clinton's post-convention bus tour through Middle America: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri. Bush countered by scheduling lightning visits to four of the same states. As Republican pollster Linda DiVall puts it: "You can go back to the old political maps, and you know what the key states are." The large crowds that greeted Clinton and Gore gave their campaign a big lift. Bush's visits to New Jersey and Pennsylvania seemed listless in comparison.

While Democrats and Republicans plot strategy, Perot hovers as a specter over the contest, with his name on the ballot in at least 34 states. No one is sure what impact the timid Texan could have on the final results, but most experts believe that if Perot garners 2% of the vote as a protest, most would come from onetime Reagan-Bush backers. "There are people who would never vote for a Democrat but who might cast a protest vote," says George Washington University political scientist Christopher F. Arterton. "It's most likely to come out of Bush's hide."

Clinton stands to gain from residual Perot nostalgia in states such as Montana and North Dakota, where the independent had been strong. But in a close race, he'll get the biggest boost in large battleground states, such as California, Michigan, and Illinois, where even a small protest vote might be enough to swing the result Clinton's way. It's a long shot, of course, but it's the best way to explain why Clinton is mentioning Perot's name every chance he gets as he barnstorms across America in search of a way to break the GOP's electoral grip.

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