This Wasn't In The Playbook

He's finally dominating the evening news on television. Thanks in part to Chief of Staff James A. Baker III's organizing skills, his "less government is better" economic message has been crisper and more focused. He has put the power of incumbency to effective use, producing hurricane aid in Florida and saving defense jobs in Missouri and Texas. And his campaign has ably fanned new life into charges that Democrat Bill Clinton dodged the draft 23 years ago.

At long last, George Bush is making the right moves. But to no apparent effect. The President still lags far behind Clinton in the polls, especially among key voter blocs (charts). Republicans are shocked that even such rock-ribbed GOP states as Florida, New Hampshire, and Indiana are up for grabs. Worries GOP strategist Jeffrey Bell: "An awful lot of voters are locking into a negative view of Bush's first term. And if this turns into a report-card election, Bush will lose 40 states."

That was unthinkable in Republican circles just weeks ago, though storm warnings have been flying all year. "Fasten your seat belt," Bush Campaign Chairman Robert M. Teeter counseled the President after the New Hampshire primary in February. "We're headed for a rough landing this November."

Bumpy, yes. But there was no doubt in the Bush cockpit of safe arrival. The moment of truth, Bush's campaign strategists have been convinced all along, would come when a surly but still largely undecided electorate focused in the final weeks of the campaign. Faced with a choice between the President and an untested and inexperienced challenger, voters would go for the devil they knew.

NO DEFINITION. Trouble is, the electorate has already weighed Bush's handling of the economy and found it wanting. And efforts to sell the President's agenda for the future are falling flat. "The ads are good, the message is good, the campaign is working well," says GOP strategist John Sears. "Trouble is, people just don't believe anything George Bush says anymore." Frets one senior Bush-Quayle strategist: "Nothing is really cutting it -- the draft thing, our economic plans. People just don't hear it."

Is the race over? Hardly. Despite Clinton's commanding lead in the polls, voters still harbor lingering doubts about his fitness for office. The reentry of Ross Perot into the fray could have explosive consequences (box). A major mistake by the challenger -- or serious new charges about his personal life -- could derail the Clinton Express. "There's yet to be a defining moment in this campaign," says Democratic strategist Mike McKeon. "Clinton's people think they are going to win, but they haven't closed the door yet."

Yet the Clintonites can barely contain their glee. "The reason Bush is struggling is because he can't change, and he doesn't understand how frustrated and angry people are," says James Carville, Clinton's political director.

For now, Bush seems to be suffering from the same malady that afflicted Gerald Ford in 1976: Voters may agree with his conservative principles, but the more they see of him, the less they want to keep him around. "People see George Bush and think he's bad for economic growth," says John A. Sasso, a top aide in the 1988 campaign of Democrat Michael S. Dukakis. "They're flailing around over there at Bush headquarters. I know the feeling."

Baker is trying to fix that. The new strategy calls for the President to stump in small-town America while the campaign fires up a $ 40 million ad campaign designed to sharpen the differences between the two candidates. "They'll be attack ads, comparison ads," says Bell. "Bush won't be seen much."

But hiding the candidate won't mask the trouble ahead. Nor can Bush stall forever. He'll almost certainly have to debate Clinton and defend his Administration's economic record. New economic data in October are likely to show more job losses. And the monetary crisis in Europe is a stark reminder of global economic uncertainty. "They have to refine the message so that people understand the world is in transition," worries South Carolina Republican Governor Carroll A. Campbell. "We're in worldwide recession. It's not Bush's fault."

To get voters' minds off the lagging economy, Bush plans to go for broke, sharply stepping up his attacks on Clinton. On Sept. 22, the campaign launched a three-pronged assault on his record as Arkansas governor, on his "out of the mainstream" economic plan, and on his qualifications for the White House.

TURN-OFFS. So far, however, Bush's efforts have met with limited success. His campaign has rubbed Clinton's face in the draft for three weeks, but polls show 82% of voters deem the matter of minor or no importance. And the assaults seem to be turning off women, young voters, and suburbanites. Attempts to win the votes of loggers by attacking owls has cost Bush support among environmentalist voters in Oregon and Washington.

But it's far too early to write off Bush. Even some of his closest advisers are starting to wonder about the Clinton phenomenon. South Carolina's Campbell surely is puzzled. "I mean, you have a candidate who knows nothing about foreign policy, has no experience in the private sector, and knows absolutely nothing about the national defense," he says. "How in the name of goodness can voters throw out a good President like George Bush and take somebody who talks nice? That's scary."

Funny. That's exactly what Jimmy Carter partisans were saying about Ronald Reagan 12 years ago.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.