A Clinton Cakewalk?

For a brief, electric moment, it appeared as if the unpredictable 1992 Presidential campaign was heading for a bizarre denouement. Wild-card independent Ross Perot, on the strength of a solid debate performance and a saturation ad campaign funded by tens of millions of his own dollars, was surging. The cocky grin faded from the face of front-runner Bill Clinton as his negative ratings zoomed amid a barrage of Republican character assaults. And an energized George Bush, whose campaign had seemed to be crawling toward disaster, suddenly saw a glimmer of hope. He told large, enthusiastic crowds that "something is happening out there."

True enough. But the something turns out to be less a Bush miracle than the latest strange twist from the Perot camp. The Dallas independent once again shook up the campaign by issuing unsubstantiated charges of GOP dirty tricks, such as wiretapping his phones and, of all things, disrupting his daughter's August wedding. The outlook in the final runup to election day: The latest controversy has blunted Perot's rise, while taking attention away from Bush's newfound ability to articulate a message and effectively blast Clinton. The Democrat, meanwhile, held the rhetorical high ground and clung to a narrowing--but still impressive--lead in the polls in the single-digit range.

IMPROBABILITIES. With the dust from the "dirty tricks" blowup settling, it appears that for all of Perot's TV time and his ability to tap voter anger, the tightly wound billionaire is unlikely to win a single state. Even if Bush continues to chip away at Clinton's popular-vote lead, he faces a daunting challenge in the Electoral College. A state-by-state analysis (map) shows Clinton ahead in more than enough states to capture the 270 electoral votes needed for victory. Even weary GOP strategists concede that the scenarios for a Bush victory that they have concocted are highly improbable.

To triumph, the President must not only win every state in which he now leads or trails narrowly, he also must steal away states such as New Jersey, Michigan, and Ohio, where Clinton still holds sizable leads. And even if Bush achieves that goal, he would still lose unless he also took states won in 1988 by Michael S. Dukakis. Among them: Wisconsin, Iowa, and Hawaii.

Here's why this year's electoral math has Bush stumped. Four years ago, he thrashed Dukakis in 9 of the 10 biggest states, losing only in New York. But this year, the Republican has virtually no chance in four megastates with 132 electoral votes: California, New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. By all rights, Texas and Florida should be solid for Bush. But state polls show that even in those Sunbelt bastions, he is struggling.

Clinton has virtually locked up New England, the Middle Atlantic region, and the Pacific Coast. More significantly, he's whipping Bush in the industrial heartland. Clinton may even pick off a few states in the GOP strongholds of the South and the Rocky Mountain West. The most likely: Tennessee, Louisiana, Colorado, and Montana.

To find Bush country, you just about need a microscope. The President is firmly ahead only in Utah, South Carolina, and Nebraska. He has been forced to spend precious time and money defending his Southern base. And although Bush is gaining momentum in the South, political analysts doubt the surge in Dixie will be enough. "It's very hard to envision a scenario where you move Bush ahead of Clinton," says pollster Edward Renwick of Loyola University in New Orleans. Adds Southern Methodist University political scientist Dennis Simon: "Unless there's a dramatic error by Clinton, he's got the election."

Glumly surveying the map, a senior Bush-Quayle official agrees that only another late surprise can save the President: "Our only chance is if this race becomes even more volatile in the closing days." While voters clearly want a change, polls show they are still not convinced that the Arkansas governor is suited for the Oval Office. Bushies are hoping their attacks on Clinton's truthfulness have softened up the Democrat for a final, fatal plunge. "All we can hope is that unhappy as they may be with George Bush, they simply will not be comfortable enough to vote for Clinton," says GOP pollster David Hill. "It's not a heck of a lot to bet the ranch on, but it's all we have."

LINGERING DOUBTS. For a while, Perot's surge in the polls heartened Bush, because the Texan was siphoning independents and Reagan Democrats away from Clinton. But Perot's outlandish allegations may have derailed the GOP's comeback strategy. Much to the chagrin of White House operatives, the new Perot-noia has distracted the President from pursuing his final-days game plan: relentlessly reinforce lingering doubts about Clinton. "Perot has been drowning out our message at a time when we should be bashing Clinton over raising taxes," says a senior Bush adviser. "If this goes mn, we've lost the election."

To make matters worse, there are indications that despite the implausibility of Perot's charges, many voters are prepared to give the Texan the benefit of the doubt. Perot's credibility was helped by the almost equally outlandish, but confirmed, reports that Administration officials had rifled Clinton's mother's passport files in search of campaign ammunition. Although media reports were deeply skeptical of Perot's allegations, internal Bush campaign polls found that more voters believed Perot's charges than Bush's denials. "When you get out where people drive around in pickup trucks, people really believe this stuff," one GOP strategist observed.

While Perot's latest outburst may have firmed support among his backers, it also may have blunted the chance for further gains. Republican consultant Jay Severin III says the charges make Perot look "shady and a little goofy." That will likely hurt Perot with upscale voters who so far have responded to his tough economic message. "He's peaked," says Democratic consultant Dane Strother. "It's the best thing that could possibly happen to Clinton."

Meanwhile, Clinton is sticking by a cautious strategy in the closing days of the race. He's staying with his message of change, appealing to centrist voters, and sitting on his lead. With so little time left, Clinton aides are prepared to accept slow erosion of his lead rather

than make any bold moves that could turn out to be costly mistakes. "Presidential elections are always close, and this one will be no exception," says top Clinton strategist Paul E. Begala.

All of this has reduced the Bushies to wishful thinking. "A surefire Clinton victory has been thrown out the window," insists Bush campaign manager Frederic V. Malek. "We have an anything-can-happen election." But while the outlook in some states may yet shift, "the bottom line is unlikely to change," Democratic pollster Diane T. Feldman says. "Clinton is the clear favorite."

Whatever the outcome, both parties have learned painful lessons. The Clintonites rediscovered the danger of being anointed as the front-runner. In a year when voters want to throw the bums out, they are likely to mistake favorites for incumbents. And the GOP learned not to rely on a third candidate to win an election. It's called dancing with a scorpion. As he staggers toward the finish line, Clinton is clearly wounded. But for Bush, the scorpion's bite shows every sign of proving lethal.

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