NEW YORK — NEVER, at least in recent memory, has a general election been so wide open.
"No one has ever seen this many voters at play at this point of the campaign," said the chief political strategist of the Clinton campaign, James Carville, at a Monitor breakfast July 14.
With nearly two-thirds of the electorate still up for grabs, the lead is likely to trade around between the three major candidates many times in coming months.
In the end, any of them could win, in Mr. Carville's view.
If Ross Perot "is able to define himself pretty quick and get a little bit of dexterity, he could win the race."
George Bush should not be underestimated either: "You can laugh about what sort of president he is. You can't laugh at what sort of candidate he is," said Carville.
The chief task for the Clinton campaign, he said, is to "turn around some misconceptions about what his life's been about" and to connect Clinton's story to where he wants to take the country.
Voters have sweeping misconceptions about Clinton's personal history, said the earthy Cajun Carville.
They tend to assume that he grew up the son of a Southern professional, went to a state university, and "drove a convertible" - when in fact, the Democratic candidate grew up in humble circumstances and became a Rhodes scholar.
Why the assumptions? "He looks a little unscarred," said Carville.
In a year of wide-open campaign uncertainties, Carville noted one sure principle - that campaigns are still mostly about the definition and character of the candidates - and one strategic necessity: "We know we have to carry California."
One point of character Clinton is demonstrating, Carville claimed, is a fearlessness about putting strong people next to him.
New York Gov. Mario Cuomo is the best speaker in the party, said Carville, and Clinton asked him to nominate him with a speech that will immediately precede Clinton's.
What's more, Carville said, in choosing Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. as his running mate, Clinton chose somebody who looks, if anything, "younger" and "fresher" than the candidate himself.