Clinton Campaign Wary As Bush Plays Catch-Up

President campaigns hard, but finds support among voters doesn't increase in the polls

THE big surprise in this intense, volatile presidential campaign is what has not happened.

Despite the more-focused, tightly executed efforts of the Bush campaign in the past month, President Bush's polling numbers are not budging.

Since the Republican convention in August, Mr. Bush's support in surveys has been at about 37 percent to 42 percent - between 10 and 12 percentage points behind Gov. Bill Clinton. In a Newsweek magazine poll released Saturday, Governor Clinton led Bush, 50 percent to 40 percent; a Time magazine-CNN poll released the same day gave Clinton 49 percent and Bush 37 percent. (The Perot factor, Page 3.)

Although an unusually large segment of the public has not made up its mind yet, the survey numbers have been frozen in a fragile stillness.

"Bush seems to have hit the glass ceiling," says a Republican pollster outside the Bush campaign.

"There is no movement," says Rep. Guy Vander Jagt (R) of Michigan, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

That does not mean that the increasingly aggressive Bush attacks on Clinton are not working. Over the past week, Bush has broadcast nationally a TV commercial attacking Clinton as a taxer and spender, and he has personally criticized Clinton's draft record.

These tactics appear to be working halfway for Bush.

"The Bush campaign has been effectively pulling people away from Clinton," says Ed Goeas, president of the Tarrance Group, a Republican polling firm.

But the Bush campaign has not been able to attract any significant number of these people.

With growing frequency, voters leave the Clinton camp for the undecided column consider the alternative - Bush - and return to the Clinton column, Mr. Goeas says.

Even Clinton campaign officials admit that their support is "soft," meaning Democratic supporters are not securely committed.

If Ross Perot enters the race, he adds an alternative for those undecided voters. In a three-man race, the latest Newsweek survey found the Texan at 9 percent, drawing from Bush and Clinton equally; Time-CNN showed Mr. Perot at 17 percent.

Most analysts see Perot supporters backing Clinton over Bush in a ratio of about 3 to 2.

So Clinton has a little more to lose nationally from Perot's entry. However, if Perot's entry is only pro forma, to allow him to air campaign commercials, he may simply steer the campaign agenda in a way that helps Clinton.

That leaves the question of why Bush has not been able to attract voters beyond the traditional Republican core of about 40 percent.

One reason is that he has deeply alienated a large group of voters, says Republican strategist Glen Bolger.

"They don't trust him to tell them the truth," he says - in part, because of Bush's infamous "read my lips" pledge.

Another reason, in the view of Republican pollster Vince Breglio, is that the language of the Bush campaign is "old, shopworn, and has outlived its shelf life."

When voters hear Bush's pitch for low taxes (especially on capital gains), less spending, and smaller government, it strikes a congenial chord with about 4 voters in 10, Mr. Breglio says. Those voters have been in the Bush camp since the GOP convention in Houston.

To the rest of the electorate, those phrases have grown familiar through the Reagan and Bush years and sound like more of the same.

"For 6 of 10 people," Breglio says, "more of the same isn't good enough."

The Bush program itself has new and popular ideas in it, he adds, such as a checkoff to earmark 10 percent of one's income taxes for deficit reduction and a tax credit for first-time homeowners.

Surveyed voters think these are great ideas, even though the Senate rejected the checkoff Friday.

For Bush, the question has become whether he still has time. Goeas points out that Gerald Ford trailed Jimmy Carter by 15 points at this point in 1976. He lost by only 1 percentage point, even after a serious debate gaffe.

Everett Carll Ladd, director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, estimates that "something along the line of 50 percent of the electorate hasn't reached a decision yet."

Dr. Ladd does not believe the public has reached a verdict, as it did with Jimmy Carter in 1980, that Bush's presidency has failed.

The verdict on Bush remains mixed, he says: "We have the potential for significant movement around an event like the debate."

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