BOSTON — Bob Dole is running out of time.
Voters go to the polls two months from today to elect the president and Congress that will lead the United States into the next century.
History and circumstance don't favor Mr. Dole. The Republican challenger once again lags some 20 points behind President Clinton, and for as long as there have been reliable opinion polls, no incumbent who led on Labor Day lost in November.
GOP strategists discounted Dole's double-digit deficits in spring and summer surveys by arguing that nothing counted until the general election began. Now they offer a new basis for optimism. "What we proved after our convention," when some polls put Dole and Clinton at a statistical dead heat, "was that Bill Clinton's support is weak and our message is strong," says California GOP consultant Sal Russo.
But if Dole has a winning message, what he lacks is an exploitable mess. The factors that favor a change are not present this year.
The misery index - combined unemployment and inflation - is at a 30-year low. No Americans are falling on foreign fields. Analysts argue there is nothing Dole can do to win this election, but that doesn't mean Mr. Clinton can't lose.
"Calamity," says Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University in Washington, in a word. "A big foreign-policy crisis could turn the election. Scandal is the only other one. It must be brand new, it must hit the president or first lady, and it must come from the special prosecutor."
What are the prospects for an upset in November? Consider three realms: foreign policy, scandal, and the stock market.
Clinton faces two potential quandaries overseas. One is Bosnia, where elections are scheduled to take place two weeks from now. Instability persists. Opposition candidates face intimidation. If a faulty ballot process sparks unrest among the three disputing factions, US ground troops could find themselves in harm's way.
The other problem is Iraq, where the potential for trouble lies both in the north and south. Following last week's attack by Iraqi forces in the UN-protected northern area inhabited by ethnic Kurds, Clinton responded with airstrikes against Baghdad's military installations. Air power, however, may not be enough to dissuade Saddam Hussein, who has slowly rebuilt his military since the Gulf war.
To the south, meanwhile, UN officials have reported a new buildup of troops in southern Iraq and the construction of a new road leading to Kuwait. Were Saddam to launch a new invasion before the election, Clinton might be in a military bind. There are no US ground troops in place, and the president has had little success in uniting US allies behind his initiatives elsewhere. "There is a lot of scope for Saddam to make trouble here," says John Steinbruner, a foreign-policy expert at the Brookings Institution, "beyond what we may be prepared for."
Regardless of what happens, however, Dole will be fortunate to create an advantage. He can't yet paint the Iraqi situation as a quagmire and voters tend to rally around the president in the early stages of foreign debacles. And as Dole discovered earlier this week, criticizing the president's "weak leadership" while an operation was under way turned out to be a mistake. He quickly found a more supportive tune.
Then there is the possibility of a scandal reaching the White House. Special counsel Kenneth Starr continues to investigate the Clinton's failed Whitewater real estate deal, the administration's apparent misuse of FBI files, and the White House travel office incident.
None so far has proved any serious wrongdoing on the part of the Clintons, but that potential nonetheless exists. The Clinton's main Whitewater partner, James McDougal, is cooperating with Mr. Starr in exchange for leniency following his May conviction. But few analysts expect the special counsel, who is a Republican, to trigger a fresh scandal so conspicuously close to the election.
THAT'S unfortunate for Dole. In the coming weeks, the GOP challenger is likely to increase his negative attacks against Clinton. Despite all the allegations that have swirled around the White House in the last four years, voters seem to have rejected character as a crucial factor.
"Character is Dole's main issue," says William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "But with their eyes wide open, voters are going on performance, not character. They've done that before, with [Presidents] Nixon and Johnson."
Another unknown is the stock market. If the Federal Reserve boosts interests rates by half a percent, investors could become rattled. That alone wouldn't tip the election balance toward Dole. But what about a major market crash this fall?
Despite the economy's positive numbers, many middle class voters harbor anxieties about their financial security. Heavy losses in the stock market could spark new interest among those voters in Dole's economic plan. It calls for a 15 percent across-the-board tax cut and other "pro-growth" measures. Or, as Mr. Schneider argues, a market crash could rally more support behind the president as voters seek stability.