The C Word Haunting Clinton's Camp: Complacency

A bit of political history has been making the rounds of Bill Clinton's headquarters lately: Not since the 1948 Truman-Dewey race has a candidate blown a lead as big as the one Clinton now holds over George Bush. The thought may be comforting, but dangerous. It's far too early for the Little Rockers to measure offices in the White House.

Granted, George Bush's give-'em-hell assault on Clinton and the Democratic Congress has been a decided dud so far. Crucial suburban independents and blue-collar Reagan Democrats have been alienated by Bush's lack of a credible economic strategy and turned off by his damn-the-facts campaign style. "Once again, Bush has failed to address the fundamental concerns of voters," says Democratic strategist Alan Secrest.

But while the attack on Clinton as a tax-and-spend Democrat isn't lifting Bush, it has exposed weaknesses that will be exploited this fall. The now-familiar--and discredited--charge that Clinton raised taxes 128 times as governor brought howls of outrage from the Arkansan. But the barrage put Clinton on the defensive. He responded that he had raised taxes 58 times but also had lowered other levies. Implication: Clinton would be more likely to sock taxpayers than the newly contrite Bush.

PACKING PUNCHES. One top adviser to Michael S. Dukakis' 1988 campaign fears that the Clinton team may be over-interpreting the last election. Dukakis, the Clintonites figure, lost because he failed to respond quickly to Bush's broadsides. Clinton has been hitting back hard, but at the expense of projecting a positive image of himself. "People aren't convinced they want Clinton as President yet," the adviser says. "That's what Clinton has to get on with."

Clinton's aides realize they have to seize the offensive. For one thing, the team brought aboard by new White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III isn't going to be making clumsy mistakes. So an upcoming ad blitz will tell voters their choice is between Bush's sickly, stand-pat economy and Clinton's plan to boost growth through public investment and education. The theme, says his political director, James Carville: "If you want the status quo, vote for Bush. If you want somebody who'll shake things up, vote for Clinton."

Clinton also must tread carefully in debates with Bush, which will probably start in late September. The governor is a master of policy details, but that could handicap him if he slips into wonkism. And the debates are where Baker could give Bush a real edge as he holds out for favorable terms. For example, he'll demand a foreign-policy matchup as late as possible. "Baker will keep a format that limits major mistakes by the President," says University of North Carolina political scientist Ted Arrington. "Clinton has to sound measured, mature, and stable. Bush won't have that burden."

LIMITED SIGHTS. Preparing for up to three debates will take a big bite out of Clinton's campaigning time. That may ultimately force Clinton to rethink his strategy of competing in all 50 states. Bush has already limited his sights. The White House has all but written off California to concentrate on its Southern base, the border states, and the industrial Midwest.

With Bush running a more disciplined campaign, Clinton should ponder another factoid: The Republicans have surged in the final weeks of every campaign since 1960. With a renewed focus, a high-pressure strategy designed to provoke Clinton into a costly late mistake, and a little good news on the economy, Bush can still battle back. That's why the cocky Clintonites would do well to think back on the fate that befell Tom Dewey in another runaway election that got away.

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