WASHINGTON — HE'S tanned, rested, and ready. Well, maybe not tanned - that's faded since he returned from vacation - but President Clinton still seems poised and eager for political combat as his bid for another four years in the White House begins.
Never mind that his polls don't look great and that retired Gen. Colin Powell is stumping the country like a conquering hero. Mr. Clinton is raising campaign cash at a tremendous rate, with $43 million expected in hand by late November. He's quietly organizing staff in key states. About the only thing missing is an official Clinton-Gore reelection announcement.
''I think it's more important to run than it was four years ago,'' said Clinton at a wide-ranging Monitor lunch with reporters. ''I think the alternative vision out there is destructive of the future we want.''
In quasi-campaign appearances around the nation, Clinton has been testing a new theme: that the United States is undergoing its most profound change since it industrialized a century ago, and that he's the guy to set the course for the next 100 years.
He repeated this assertion at the Monitor gathering on Sept. 25. There are many contradictory trends now affecting Americans, said the president, with the economy booming but jobs in flux. Some kinds of crime are on the decrease, while others are becoming more prevalent.
''There needs to be an extra effort to keep the American people positive about our future ... and realistic about what our opportunities, as well as our problems, are,'' Clinton said.
Not that he's always been great at this kind of inspirational leadership in the past, as he himself admitted. Clinton said he had underestimated the importance of the presidency as a bully pulpit during his 2-1/2 years in office, while overestimating the importance of legislative battles.
''I must say,'' he sighed, ''they've been a stormy 30 months.''
Early campaign start
Still, he obviously aims to tack 48 more months onto the time in the Oval Office he's already won. While national attention has focused on the race for the Republican nomination, the Clinton team has been quietly preparing its own election strategy. Two reasons for its early start are already clear:
* Deterrence of potential primary challengers. With the Rev. Jesse Jackson, among others, talking about challenging the president from the left, Clinton must first ensure that he can walk away with his own party's nomination. While he would almost certainly win an intra-Democratic fight, such a battle could siphon off resources and attention needed for the general election.
Thus Clinton political team members are already organized in the early testing-ground states of Iowa and New Hampshire as if they themselves were challengers eager for a fast start.
* Money, money, money. In a coast-to-coast fund-raising blitz last week, Clinton raised some $5 million for his campaign. Advisers expect almost $20 million in hand by October, putting Clinton well ahead of the bankroll pace of the reelection campaigns of his Republican predecessors. Federal law allows the president to raise $43 million in direct campaign contributions - a ceiling he may hit by late November or early December.
What's left is for Clinton to refine his stump speech and campaign issues. He appeared to be doing just that at the Monitor luncheon, as he spoke freely about what he felt he had accomplished and work still on the agenda.
Asked what he'd do to help average people if reelected, Clinton ticked off his economic list: Change the mix of jobs to include more higher-pay employment; protect spending on research and development; get a higher percentage of the population into education; raise the minimum wage.
Still a popular guy
He denied that the Republican takeover of Congress last fall represented a sweeping, personal repudiation. Instead, he said a close race-by-race analysis shows that the House changed hands because Democrats had pushed through gun-control measures such as the Brady bill and assault-weapons ban. An angry National Rifle Association then helped bring down key House Democrats, he claimed.
The gays-in-the-military flap that occupied the first months of his time in office was not due to his own actions, Clinton insisted. ''I didn't take that on. That was an issue that was visited on the presidency,'' because it was already moving through the courts.
Clinton said his personal relations with Speaker Newt Gingrich are cordial. But he accused the Speaker of ''blackmail'' because of his threat that the national debt ceiling won't be raised unless Clinton agrees to the goal of balancing the federal budget within seven years. And he said Gingrich should live up to his promise to appoint a commission to study the issue of lobbying reform.
Then, at the end of the lunch the president and White House staff surprised longtime Monitor columnist Godfrey Sperling Jr. and his wife with a cake in honor of his birthday and long service to journalism. ''Now, we're going to take care of you,'' the president laughed, as reporters serenaded Mr. Sperling with a round of ''Happy Birthday''.