THE angry mood of American voters, shaken by the loss of jobs, now poses a serious threat to President Bush's efforts to win a second term.
Both Republican and Democratic strategists say the forthcoming struggle between Mr. Bush and Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas this fall will be incredibly close. The eroding economy and the spreading stain of scandal in Washington have put voters in an "ugly, ugly" mood, says Keith Frederick, a Democratic political consultant. People are "looking for change," he says.
Ed Rollins, a top Republican strategist, says: "The American public is not in a very forgiving mood.... I have never seen an electorate like this in 30 years." He warns that unless Bush lays out clearly where he wants to take this country during the next four years, he will put his reelection "at risk."
Although the presidential primaries will continue for another 10 weeks, Washington already is turning its attention to the fall, when they assume it will be Bush vs. Clinton. Analysts say the young governor, who has demolished his competitors in state after state, could be the Democrats' most formidable candidate in years.
Even so, Mr. Clinton begins this race somewhat wounded. His public image was smudged during the early primaries when charges were leveled at him concerning marital infidelity, a questionable land deal, and his apparent attempt as a young man to avoid the draft.
If the fall campaign gets personal, Republicans may replay all of those issues.
Like all national campaigns, this contest will be a race by Republicans and Democrats to assemble winning coalitions of North and South, black and white, and rich and poor to reach a majority in the electoral college.
David Menefee-Libey, a political scientist at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., says Democrats, whose Roosevelt-era coalition fell apart during the 1980s, may do better this time. He says Clinton is successfully "putting back together a coalition that everyone assumed was dead - working-class and middle-class whites and blacks."
In 1980, Ronald Reagan proved himself the master of coalition-building when he united millions of blue-collar workers in the North, middle-class and working-class whites in the South, and increasing numbers of Hispanics, along with traditional Republican voters in the suburbs. The combination was potent, giving the GOP victories in 1980, 1984, and 1988. Rollins, who ran Reagan's 1984 campaign, says: "I've always been able to put coalitions together of Jewish voters, black voters, [and] labor union blue-c ollar Democrats for Republican candidates." This year, he says, "that's impossible."
Jewish voters are defecting because of Bush's refusal to provide loan guarantees to Israel unless the Israelis stop building new settlements on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Black voters and union members are outraged over the loss of jobs to Mexico and other nations.
Speaking to reporters over breakfast, Rollins said that because of the crumbling economy, "Bill Clinton will have as solid a Democrat base as any modern Democrat in the 20 years that I've been a Republican."
Adding to the Republicans' problems could be a well-financed, independent bid for the presidency by Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot.
With his potential to draw a large vote, especially among conservatives, in Bush strongholds like Texas and Florida, Mr. Perot could send the president's political bandwagon skidding into a ditch.
Perot's candidacy, however, concerns both parties. His impact remains uncertain. And his popularity might hurt both major party candidates, since many voters wish someone else - someone better than the two leading candidates - were in this race.
People are upset with Bush because he seems too focused on foreign affairs while the economy stumbles at home. He seems strangely out of touch, they tell pollsters.
Clinton isn't known very well. But in the primary states, some voters thought he was too slippery - thus the harsh nickname, "Slick Willie."
Thomas Mann says these judgments are too severe. Dr. Mann, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution, says the choices this year are better than most voters want to admit.
"It was a very weak field of Democratic candidates," Mann says. "But easily the most qualified and able ... emerged as the apparent nominee. That says something about the good sense of the American people."
He continues: "As for Bush, what you see is what you get. He has never been a great visionary. He is smart, able, decent, but has no great mission other than doing the right thing.
`SO the choice is between someone who wants to do the right thing [Bush] and someone who wants to do what the voters want [Clinton]. It's not so awful."
Rollins says Americans' satisfaction with the 1992 election may depend on how it is conducted. "The American public is really going to demand that you start talking about issues, and not about personalities and not about rumors and innuendoes," he says.
But both candidates are known for hitting hard. And both are vulnerable to mud-slinging. Rollins says that if an all-out personal battle breaks out, "there's enough garbage on both sides" to make this race "down and dirty."