Bush Hopes Perot Does Well; Clinton Looks for a Mandate

Democrats try to guard against overoptimism

WITH a wariness born of bitter experience, many Democrats are suppressing their euphoria.

The mood entering the last scheduled presidential debate and the final two weeks before election day is "awestruck and slightly disbelieving," as one veteran of the 1984 Mondale campaign puts it.

Democrats have not won a presidential election in 16 years, but Gov. Bill Clinton's commanding lead in the polls has held for two months and through all the debates so far.

"The people I talk to still have a hard time believing a Democrat will be elected, even though it's fairly obvious at this point," says Democratic consultant Greg Schneiders.

"People believe it in their heads, but not in their gut," says William Galston, a professor at the University of Maryland who is active in party policy discussions.

The Clinton campaign's prospects rest on support that advisers acknowledge is soft and changeable. Opinion experts working for the Clinton campaign say that the public's verdict on the Bush presidency is now fixed. But some acknowledge that the verdict on Governor Clinton is not yet completely set.

"All the play now is Bill Clinton," says Clinton pollster Samuel Popkin. "Bush is decided [in the public judgment]. It's a question of whether Clinton can offer hope."

The task for the Clinton campaign in the next two weeks, he says, is to offer "real reassurance for people who are needing a little bit more."

The reassurance will focus on who Clinton is - his personal background and record in Arkansas - and how he is a new and "different" kind of Democrat.

Voters will be exposed in coming days to two lines of attack from the Bush campaign, which has much of its budget left to spend on television ads. One concerns trust, playing on Clinton's account of his Vietnam-era behavior. The other concerns whether Clinton would raise taxes and spending.

The Clinton camp, so far, sees no need to rebut these attacks directly because it sees no evidence that they are working. "The race has moved way past the character question," Dr. Popkin says.

"Based on the polling numbers and the last debate, the receptiveness to such attacks is extraordinarily low," Dr. Galston says.

"I think there's still some uneasiness that a lot of voters may feel" about Clinton's credibility, Mr. Schneiders says, "but the longer he goes without any damaging new information, the more those concerns recede."

Republican pollster Ed Goeas, president of the Tarrance Group, argues that the attacks on Clinton's Vietnam War protests abroad may, in fact, be working. His nightly tracking polls for Campaign Hotline showed Clinton's lead over President Bush dropping from 15 percentage points to 10 during the last week. He sees much of the movement away from Clinton coming from conservative Democrats, especially women who don't work.

The movement is not clear in many polls, however. And the 10-point spread is still roughly the same as it has been since the Republican convention.

Mr. Goeas says that roughly 40 percent of voters are not definite in their decision yet. Traditionally, about 25 percent of voters make up their minds in the last 10 days. In primaries this year, he says, about 40 percent have been deciding in the final 10 days.

He is not especially optimistic that these voters will tilt heavily in President Bush's favor. But Ross Perot also remains a wild card in the campaign and presents more of a threat to Clinton than Bush.

"You're not seeing the math work out for George Bush in terms of a two-way race," he says. But if Mr. Perot rises to about 20 percent, which Goeas sees as possible but not likely, he would pull enough from Clinton to even him with Bush.

One decision for the Clinton campaign over the next two weeks is how much to clearly focus the campaign on legislative priorities in the potential Clinton presidency.

"The closer we get to the election, the more important it is for candidate Clinton to home in on a mandate," says Will Marshall, director of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank that Clinton has been associated with for years.

To make it clear that voters elected him to do something in particular, Clinton would have to be very simple and clear about what he stands for now. The risk is that he also could lose support on election day by narrowing his priorities.

But if he is elected, a clear mandate could make Clinton's work much easier. It would give him the authority needed to sort through the intense competition between people and policies during the transition and once in office. "There's a lot of pent-up demand on all fronts, on policy and personnel," Galston says. "It will be his first major challenge."

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