WASHINGTON — WITH less than a month before voters go to the polls to elect a president, Clinton campaign organizers are intent on solidifying support, drawing in undecided voters, and nullifying the impact of Ross Perot's bid for the White House on their candidate.
"The race has been stagnant for the last month," says Craig Smith, who directs the Clinton campaign's state-by-state operations from Clinton-Gore headquarters in Little Rock, Ark. Gov. Bill Clinton has sustained a steady 10-point-plus lead over incumbent George Bush. But in Clinton campaignese, "focus" is the most common word spoken by the 400 workers camped out at their home base: focus on Clinton's message, focus on get-out-the-voter schemes, focus on winning.
In the coming weeks, the Little Rock strategists - like their GOP counterparts - will deal with fast-changing dynamics: a surge in campaign advertising (both the Republican and Democratic camps claim that their war chests are still very well stocked), a series of four debates that pit Clinton's prescriptions for change against Bush's promises for a second term, and a potentially damaging Perot entry that has turned the campaign into a three-way race.
Top Bush campaign strategist Charles Black says Americans can expect to " see a Bush-Quayle '92 ad every day.... Ninety percent of people will see more than two." Mr. Black says that until this week, the Bush camp has spent only 10 percent of its ad budget. "We've held our fire ... we have a good advantage in terms of cash flow" to whittle away Clinton's lead, he says.
"We've both held back," Democratic National Committee Chairman Ron Brown said at a Monitor lunch.
The Democrats are ready to counter the GOP's charge, he says. "We've done very little [in terms of spending campaign dollars on advertising]." He expects the Clinton campaign to spend upward of $40 million over the four weeks, primarily on television ads.
Republicans pledge hard-hitting commercials about the Arkansas governor's past and his tax increases, and spots that say his "tax and spend" national economic plan will put greater tax burdens on average Americans.
The GOP will continue asking nagging questions about Mr. Clinton's credibility. Asserting that the Democratic nominee will be forced to hold a press conference in order to confront charges about his efforts to avoid the Vietnam War, Black says the draft issue is "Exhibit A" about how Clinton "misled people."
Mr. Smith scoffs at the attack ads. "If you destroyed the world's largest economy, you wouldn't have anything positive to offer the American voters either."
Armed with fresh data on the country's sagging economy (falling industrial production, a sharp decline in new-home sales, and sinking consumer confidence) Clinton will stress that Bush not only failed to follow through on his pledge to create 30 million new jobs, but that the unemployment rate is actually more than 2 percent higher today than when he entered office in 1988.
`IF the Bush campaign wants to be negative, the American public will realize that he has nothing positive to offer," says Skip Rutherford, assistant Clinton campaign chairman and a former chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party.
But the Bush camp is relying on the assault to help deliver the pivotal undecided voters. "A lot of late decisions are going to be made in the next few weeks," Black says. The GOP, he says, is intent on wooing those voters.
"We're not taking anyone for granted," Mr. Brown says, "even if they've been with us since Franklin Roosevelt." Democrats are reaching out to new voters, minority voters (especially in Florida, California, and Texas), and fighting complacency among supporters they've already won, says the DNC chairman.
Democratic leaders hope positive messages will draw electoral support. The Clinton-Gore ticket "offers people something to vote for, not something to vote against. This election is about change and jobs. Most Americans want both," Mr. Rutherford says.
Debates are opportunities for Clinton to "stay on his message," and explain his economic plan, Brown says. But Black says "in two weeks, a whole lot more will believe that [Bush] is more likely to hold down taxes than Bill Clinton." That will be borne out by the coming debates, he says.
If Bush is looking to the coming debates to sharpen his image as an economic policymaker, Clinton will be ready, Rutherford says. "It took George Bush three and a half years to devise an economic plan, and he only did it because his job was in jeopardy, not the jobs of the American people."
Clinton's economic policy director Gene Sperling says Perot's entry won't hurt Clinton in the debates. He says the severity of Perot's deficit-elimination proposal would hurt prospects for employment and economic recovery in the medium term, and casts a more favorable light on Clinton's "putting people first" plan to create jobs and stimulate growth.