Marathon Series Puts Clinton's Lead to the Test

TV face-offs give Bush, Perot opportunities. PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES

THE 1992 race for the White House is failing the "bumper sticker test," says David Chagall, but the forthcoming presidential debates could help.

Mr. Chagall, a California political analyst, says that as he drives the freeways around Los Angeles he has "never seen so few bumper stickers on cars this late in a presidential campaign. The commitment on both sides is very low. So these debates could be really telling."

The debates will also be historic. Never before have Americans seen anything like the televised marathon that begins next Sunday. Four debates - three presidential, one vice-presidential - all within nine days. All 90 minutes long.

There's another new wrinkle. This time there are expected to be three contenders debating - Bill Clinton, George Bush, and Ross Perot - instead of the traditional two. No one is sure how well that will work.

Governor Clinton, currently the front-runner, clearly has the most to lose. He leads President Bush by more than 10 points in most polls. A major gaffe, a poor performance, could be a serious blow, just as Richard Nixon was damaged in his 1960 face-off against John Kennedy and Gerald Ford was hurt in 1976 against Jimmy Carter.

Mr. Bush has the most to gain, at least in the short run. Republicans admit his campaign is stuck in neutral. He needs something dramatic to break the inertia.

Mr. Perot remains the wild card, as he was when he first shook up the presidential campaign last spring. Though currently getting only 7 or 8 percent in most polls, he will be in a good position to needle both major party nominees. A number of analysts, including Chagall and debate specialist Diana Carlin of the University of Kansas, say the candidates will have their own agendas in the coming TV showdown. Here's how the experts see it for each man:

Bill Clinton. The governor is comfortably ahead, but just winning this election won't guarantee that he will be an effective president. A series of sterling performances in the debates, in which he lays out his vision of America's future, could galvanize his support, excite voters, impress Congress, and lay the groundwork for his presidency.

Clinton needs a clear mandate for change from the American people, experts say. Given that mandate, he can coax Congress to follow his lead in making the tough decisions that could be necessary on taxes, entitlements like medicare, and other budget priorities to get the national deficit under control. Chagall says Clinton's performance could clear up lingering doubts about putting him into the Oval Office - that voters will be looking for "stature, maturity, credibility" in this final month of the campai gn.

"Even though this is a rocky period in the United States, it is not so rocky that Americans will be taking mighty risks with their votes," Chagall says.

George Bush. Charles Black, a senior campaign strategist for Bush, recently told a breakfast meeting of reporters that the series of debates could favor the president.

When the Bush campaign asks voters whose programs and plans they prefer, Bush wins, Mr. Black says.

However, the specific content of the candidates' programs could be overlooked in the first debate while viewers focus on personal characteristics.

As the debates continue, Black says, content will become more and more important, and Bush will have the advantage.

Republicans also hope the debates bring a new dynamic to this race. The latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup daily tracking poll gives Clinton 49 percent, Bush 36 percent, Perot 8 percent. Try as he may, Bush seems unable to bring his numbers above 40 percent.

An excellent performance in the debates by Bush, however, could boost his numbers by 5 or 6 percent, his aides say, and bring a victory within reach.

Ross Perot. "He has to demonstrate that he really is a serious candidate," says John Anderson, who was an independent presidential contender in 1980. Chagall says that at this moment, Perot represents the "none of the above" vote, which is less than 10 percent. But on the stage with Bush and Clinton, he will have to prove that he really belongs in the Oval Office, Chagall says.

Perot reportedly is negotiating to buy 30-minute blocks of TV time on national networks to present his case to the voters.

Professor Carlin says her research indicates that, ordinarily, very few people switch candidates because of debates.

The presidential debates are scheduled Oct. 11, 15, and 19.

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