WASHINGTON — GEORGE BUSH'S drive for the White House during the next two weeks promises to be the greatest challenge of his long and varied political career.
Fortified by his best debate performance yet, he vows to "out-hustle, out-work" Democrat Bill Clinton and independent Ross Perot in the final days of the election campaign. "We're starting to move," he says.
Yet the president, down by 17 to 19 points in national polls, will have to move fast. Only an unprecedented rebound by Mr. Bush, or a disastrous mistake by Governor Clinton, could bring the president within striking distance by Nov. 3, many analysts say.
Del Ali, an independent pollster, says the Bush-Clinton-Perot fray is like a football game in the final minute, with Clinton's team ahead and controlling the ball.
"Clinton just has to put his knee down and let the clock run out," Mr. Ali says. "Bush needs a fumble, or for Clinton to try a crazy play."
The much-awaited final debate Oct. 19 at Michigan State University encouraged Bush partisans, but came very late in the game.
An Associated Press panel of debate coaches voted it a narrow Bush victory, with Clinton second and businessman Perot third.
An ABC-TV poll of 710 viewers took a different view, scoring it Clinton 36 percent, Mr. Perot 26 percent, and Bush 21 percent.
Robert Branham, a professor of rhetoric at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, concluded: "There was no clear winner." Bush had one major point he was trying to hammer home - namely, that Clinton cannot have it both ways on issues like the Gulf war, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and his draft record. The underlying message: Clinton is a weak, vacillating, ineffective person.
In a departure from his approach in the second debate, in Richmond, Va., the president, in the final debate, strongly defended the economic policies of the Reagan-Bush years, pointing out, for example, that 15 million jobs were created.
Professor Branham gave Clinton credit for effectively rebutting some of Bush's points, particularly when the governor defended his state after the president called Arkansas "the lowest of the low."
Perot got credit for a strong performance - particularly in his closing statement, when he asked the audience which of the three men they would prefer to handle their children's trust funds. The self-made Texas billionaire suggested he was the clear choice.
What stunned Ali was the determined effort Perot made to embarrass Bush on his record of aid to Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein.
Ali was also impressed by Perot's effort to discount the importance of Clinton's controversial draft record during the Vietnam conflict. While Bush has tried to make that point an issue, Perot dismissed it as "a waste of time."
Perot attacked Bush repeatedly on his record in Iraq, where he accused the president of coddling the dictator. Over and over, Perot was like a blocker in football, doing the hard hitting, and clearing the way for Clinton to run through Bush's defenses.
Perot's tough talk "hit me like a bombshell," says Ali. "Clinton let Perot do the dirty work."
Branham made a similar point: "In all three [presidential] debates, Perot and Clinton allied on the most important issues, including the economy."
This two-against-one framework made it much more difficult for Bush to use these debates to overwhelm Clinton and turn the race around. Branham explains: "After the debates, the campaign still rests clearly on the economy. President Bush was relatively unsuccessful in moving the debate back to character. Perot had a significant influence in deflecting the character issue by dismissing it as irrelevant."
At more than one point, Branham noted, when the character issue arose Perot was able to redirect the discussion to Bush's own character and his handling of foreign policy, particularly regarding Saddam Hussein and Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega.
Occasionally, Perot was bipartisan in his jibes. He practically scoffed at Clinton's experience as governor of Arkansas as poor preparation for being president. He compared it to operating a corner grocery store as preparation for running WalMart, the nation's largest retail chain.
The net effect of Perot's presence, however, was a plus for the governor. And following the debates, analysts suggest that Perot's importance in this race could once again grow.
Historian Alfred Eckes Jr. at Ohio University says the three-way race reminds him of 1912, when incumbent President William Howard Taft finished third behind former President Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson who won.
Ali says: "This was Perot's best performance. He seemed really sincere."
Yet Perot is held back by his earlier withdrawal from the race in July. Many people lost confidence in him then. "No matter what he says, that is his albatross," Ali says.