WASHINGTON — DURING one week, Bill Clinton barnstorms through Texas, the heart of Bush country. Another week, he campaigns in South Carolina, a Bush stronghold. Later, the Arkansas governor goes on statewide TV in Florida, a bastion of Republican strength.
What goes on here? Just seven weeks before the November election, Democrats are reshuffling the political cards, putting George Bush on the defensive in cities and states where Republicans should already have a winning hand.
Political scientist Thomas Mann says there is an "explicit decision" within the Clinton campaign to expand the battleground against Mr. Bush, to make the president "fight to win his base in some of those Southern states."
Clinton strategist Samuel Popkin puts it a little differently. Clinton wants to let every major group of voters across the country know that he won't back off from a battle to win their votes, he says. Whether they are Southern whites or Northern ethnics, Clinton won't concede a single voter to the GOP.
The "wide battlefield" strategy of the Democrats already is complicating Republican plans to assemble the 270 electoral votes they need to retain the White House.
Ordinarily, the GOP can count on its "electoral lock" in the Sunbelt states, from Virginia to California, to provide most of the electoral votes the party needs. By picking up additional votes in the Rocky Mountain region, plus a few more in the Northeast and Midwest, Ronald Reagan, and then Bush, coasted to big victories.
Those easy days may be gone. Looking at the electoral map, Bush can no longer depend on California, where Clinton is favored. The South is no longer solid, with Arkansas and Tennessee both expected to go to Clinton. Even Texas, Bush's official home state, is a little shaky.
In the North, Clinton is favored in big states like Illinois, Pennsylvania, and New York. Ohio and Michigan are tossups. Connecticut, where Bush grew up, is uncertain. New Jersey, usually reliable for the GOP in presidential races, is now in doubt.
Unless the nature of this election changes dramatically, getting to 270 electoral votes will require the Bush team to perform some deft, broken-field running in the next seven weeks. They'll need to grab a few votes in New England (Maine and New Hampshire), fight for New Jersey, virtually sweep the South, pull out a victory in Michigan despite high unemployment in the auto industry, capture Missouri and Ohio, where Clinton is ahead, and take almost every state in the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains.
"It would take an incredible set of events for Bush to pull it out," says Del Ali, vice president of Mason-Dixon Opinion Research. On the other hand, Clinton seems to have more room for error - at least for now. Democrats usually can count on New York, the second most populous state, in presidential races, but now California looks good for them, too. Add to that two other giants, Pennsylvania and Illinois, and Clinton is favored in four large states which would give him nearly half the electoral votes (1 32) that he needs.
If one adds other usually Democratic-leaning states - Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, West Virginia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, plus the District of Columbia - then Clinton is 80 percent of the way to victory.
Adding Arkansas (Clinton's home state) and Tennessee (running mate Albert Gore Jr.'s home state) brings the Democrats up to 233 electoral votes, just 37 votes shy.
The final margin could come from any combination of states where Democrats are in contention, including Michigan, Ohio, Connecticut, Vermont, North Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, New Mexico, Colorado, Montana, or even Texas.
Dr. Mann, who is director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution, says by expanding his campaign into Bush territory, Clinton makes it harder for the president to focus efforts on key battleground states like Michigan and Ohio.
If Bush must spend time crisscrossing Florida (where he won four years ago by 22 percent) or Texas (where he won by 12 percent), Clinton's strategy will be immensely successful.
"It's not that Clinton will win Florida, but Clinton doesn't want Bush to take it for granted," Mann says. Further, by taking a stand in Florida, South Carolina, and other states which are nominally for Bush, Clinton sends a message to key voter groups like Southern whites that Democrats are back in the presidential game in the region.
Dr. Popkin says Clinton also is responding to something unusual for recent Democratic presidential candidates in the South: Many local politicians want to be seen on the same platform with him.
In the past, many Southern Democratic officeholders ran away from Northern Democratic nominees, such as Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts and George McGovern of South Dakota.
"Where you go depends in part on how much local people want to be seen with you," Popkin says. "Contrast this: People [Democrats] running for the Senate in Florida want Bill Clinton to be seen in Florida with them. People [Republicans] running for the Senate in California do not want to be seen with Bush in California."