WASHINGTON — ROUGH-AND-TUMBLE politics has dominated the first frenetic week of the autumn presidential campaign.
President Bush, hoping to blunt Gov. Bill Clinton's momentum, has ripped into the governor's efforts to avoid the military draft during the Vietnam War.
Governor Clinton immediately fought back by questioning Mr. Bush's candor about his role in the Iran-contra scandal.
Merle Black, a Southern political scientist, says that if the campaigns keep going down this road, with mud flying in all directions, it "could be brought down to the level of a Texas sheriff's race. Virtually everybody is calling each other a liar."
What's behind such politics? Experts say the answer is obvious.
Ever since the Democratic National Convention in July, Clinton has been riding high in the saddle, with his approval rating near 60 percent. To get back into this race, Bush needs to knock Clinton off his horse. He is trying to do that by going after the Arkansas governor in a very personal way.
Meanwhile, the president's own popularity has declined. Disapproval by voters has gone steadily up, except for a slight improvement right after the Republican National Convention. For the first time, the latest Gallup Poll, taken Aug. 31-Sept. 2, shows Bush with a higher unfavorable rating (49 percent) than favorable (45 percent).
As pressure grows on Bush, the president's strategy is "attack, attack, attack," complains Sen. Tim Wirth (D) of Colorado, a Clinton supporter. "We're going to have a medieval battle ... and [Republicans] are going to use large catapults and large buckets full of ... mud."
Senator Wirth argues that the draft issue is just a "diversion" to steer public attention away from the weak economy.
Siding with Bush, Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas brought the campaign to the Senate floor this week when he complained that Clinton's statements about his draft record just do not make sense. He demanded that the Democratic candidate reveal the entire record.
"I have some advice for Governor Clinton," Senator Dole told his colleagues. "Tell the truth. Release the information, even if it hurts. It's all about trust and confidence and credibility. And if in this time of personal political crisis, it amounts to making your own Checkers speech ... so be it."
"Checkers" refers to a 1952 speech by Richard Nixon, then a candidate for vice president. He went on national television to refute accusations that he had a secret Republican slush fund.
During the past week, despite the ping-pong of charge and countercharge, Clinton and his running mate, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee, have kept their major focus right where they want it - on the economy.
IN a statewide television hookup Wednesday night in Florida, Clinton proclaimed the need to create "high-wage, high-skill jobs" by making sure there are "no more tax breaks for moving jobs overseas." Further, he insisted that every dollar saved in defense cuts should be poured into job-training and other projects to boost the economy.
Clinton criticizes both soaring deficit spending and health-care costs. He argues that while the country pours more and more money into those two areas, there will not be enough left over to build a 21st Century economy.
"We are the only advanced country in the world that does not have national leadership to control health-care costs," he says.
Earlier, in Portland, Ore., Clinton decried the slump in manufacturing employment in the United States to only 16 percent of the work force. About 30 percent work in manufacturing in both Japan and Germany.
"Just in the last four years, we've lost 1.3 million manufacturing jobs and had a real decline in manufacturing wages of 5 percent," Clinton notes. "For the first time in American history in the last four years, employment in government has exceeded employment in manufacturing."
Those numbers have prompted Clinton to demand a reduction of 100,000 federal workers if he is elected.
Clinton's constant pounding on the economy - a theme of great importance to most voters - is the principal factor keeping the president on the defensive, analysts say.
During a campaign stop in Pennsylvania on Wednesday, Bush conceded that the economy "is lousy. We know that.... We are in a global recession.... It has been too long."
Pollster Del Ali of Mason-Dixon Opinion Research says voters agree, and that is making Bush's political task the hardest of any president since Jimmy Carter was challenged by Ronald Reagan in 1980.