HOUSTON — REPUBLICANS are sharpening dozens of verbal arrows - sometimes tipped with highly personal accusations - to aim at Democratic front-runner Bill Clinton in the coming days.
Led by surrogates, including Richard Bond, chairman of the Republican Party, and Robert Mosbacher, co-chairman of the Bush-Quayle campaign, the GOP has begun firing at Governor Clinton on everything from his spending policies to his personal morals.
Even his eating habits have come under attack.
Mr. Bond's favorite phrase, charging that Clinton is "the failed governor of a small state," is becoming a mantra of Bush loyalists. Meanwhile, Mr. Mosbacher tells journalists here at the Republican National Convention that, when it comes to personal character, "there's just no comparison" between President Bush and Clinton.
All this carries risks for the GOP. The next shot, they know, could go wild and hit them in the foot. But Clinton has moved so far ahead, and time is so short, that Republicans are growing panicky.
Claibourne Darden Jr., an independent pollster in Atlanta, says there will be complaints from some commentators if Bush and his team slam Clinton hard. But Mr. Darden observes that the president "has to get rough because he is weak."
Because of Bush's political vulnerability, most analysts expect this to be one of the nastiest campaigns on record. Unless Bush can bring down the high-flying Clinton, the governor could not only sink the president's hopes, but also dash GOP prospects for gains in Congress.
Ed Rollins, a Republican tactician who masterminded Ronald Reagan's reelection campaign in 1984, then switched to Ross Perot in 1992, cautions his fellow Republicans that too much negative campaigning could backfire.
"A purely negative campaign would be a disaster for this president in this environment," Mr. Rollins told a luncheon meeting of reporters at the convention.
"If they think the whole campaign should be to go take out Bill Clinton by raising every innuendo, Rollins said, "... it's not going to work."
Rollins said: "This election really is about George Bush, and you've got to get voters to ... get a confidence in him.... If this ends up a lesser-of-two-evils race, the president may very well lose it."
Even so, Republicans are digging for everything unfavorable they can find about Clinton.
Among the major charges being aired by Republican operatives:
* Jobs. Clinton's economic plan would destroy nearly 2 million jobs, including more than 100,000 each in California, Texas, Florida, and New York.
* Environment. Clinton's vice-presidential running mate, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee, is an "environmental extremist" whose policies would wipe out jobs.
* Taxes. Clinton wants them higher - a change based on his record of raising taxes and fees 128 times (an average of once a month) in Arkansas.
* Military record. Clinton avoided military service in Vietnam, in sharp contrast to Bush's volunteer service as a carrier-based bomber pilot during World War II.
* Inflation. Clinton, like Congress, would be Democratic. The last time that happened, the United States had "double-digit everything," including unemployment, interest rates, and inflation.
* Free trade. Clinton is a tool of big labor and would stifle free trade to protect union contracts, pushing up prices to consumers.
* Liberalism. Clinton favors the tax-and-spend approach of liberal Democrats on Capitol Hill like Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.
* Character. Clinton's alleged infidelity calls into question his truthfulness and his moral standards in contrast to the president.
* Health care. Clinton's plans would boost payroll taxes by 7 percent, while reducing the number of US jobs by 700,000.
* Arkansas. Clinton's state, after 12 years of his governorship, ranks 46th in teacher salaries and 50th in per-capita spending on law enforcement.
* Hillary Clinton. The governor's wife, a children's-rights advocate, "believes kids should be able to sue their parents rather than helping with the chores that they were asked to do," Mr. Bond charges.
* Eating habits. A key White House aide, echoing a Clinton remark, says that Clinton's eating habits (Wendy's hamburgers, Dunkin' Donuts) are so bad that he constitutes a "one-man landfill."
With Nov. 3 drawing near, the Bush campaign hopes these arguments shake loose millions of Clinton supporters.
As this convention week progresses, the anti-Clinton rhetoric is expected to escalate. Bond says that when candidate Clinton promises to do for America what he has done for Arkansas, "I don't take that as a promise, I take it as a threat."
Republicans hope that, with Clinton still leading Bush by double-digit margins, such tactics will begin to hit home soon.