COULD Ross Perot's candidacy be a breakthrough for Bill Clinton?
As the presidential primaries end, Governor Clinton's political team says his strength is gradually growing as he crisscrosses the country in search of support.
Meanwhile, President Bush's standing in the polls has nose-dived as Mr. Perot grabs the headlines, pounds Mr. Bush's record, and dominates the political talk shows on television.
Paul Tully, political director for the Democratic National Committee, says only one-third of the American electorate has focused on the election so far - giving Clinton many opportunities in the months ahead to take the lead.
With Perot drawing all the attention, Clinton has become almost a forgotten candidate, the third man out in this three-way race for the White House.
Yet even without press attention, Clinton's support has stabilized, and he has remained within easy striking distance of first place.
The latest ABC-Washington Post nationwide poll gives Perot 34 percent, Bush 31 percent, and Clinton 29 percent. Meanwhile, a nationwide survey by CBS shows Bush with 35 percent, Clinton 27 percent, Perot 26 percent.
Clinton's next big opportunity comes next month at the Democratic National Convention in New York City. Traditionally, national conventions give presidential candidates a big bump upward in the polls - sometimes as much as 15 percent. Analysts say it is possible that, after the July convention, Clinton could be the front-runner.
Mr. Tully says that, when voters get a better look at Perot, the Bush-Clinton-Perot race will begin to sort itself out, with Democrats in a solid position. He explains: "Everybody knows it [the country] is broken, and they want to know who can fix it. Step-by-step, Clinton is filling in who he is and what he is going to do to fix it." Once voters compare Clinton's solutions with those of Bush and Perot, Tully says, voters will find themselves much more comfortable with the Democratic approach.
Some critics scoff at that, however. Claibourne Darden Jr., an Atlanta pollster, says Clinton's campaign is basically dead. The governor sustained too much damage during the primaries because of his alleged marital infidelity, charges of draft evasion, and other matters.
But another Southern analyst, political scientist Wayne Parent at Louisiana State University, says he would put his money on Clinton if he had to pick the probable winner.
"He certainly has a chance of winning," Dr. Parent says. "Right now, Clinton is playing it rather smart, not angering Perot voters.
"There is a natural Democratic vote out there - blacks, labor, and others, 35 to 40 percent of the country.... Once we get to the convention and into August, a lot of the normal Democratic supporters are likely to move back to Clinton," Parent says. He agrees with Tully, who says that a large number of traditional Democrats don't back Clinton now because they simply don't know him, or are only familiar with the comic-book images of him portrayed by the supermarket tabloids.
Perot adds to Clinton's chances, Parent suggests. "In this confusing election, there are a lot of Democratic voters who are likely to stick with Clinton in the end, especially when he gets a credible vice-presidential candidate. And if he only needs 37 or 38 percent to win in a three-way race, he has a good shot."
Parent continues: "Being 10 points behind right now is not very much for the candidate of the party that is at least equal, if not first, in party allegiance in the United States."
The professor predicts that, by August or September, Clinton will be "the flavor-of-the-month" among the three major presidential contenders.
Two other analysts, Horace Busby, who was an aide to President Lyndon Johnson, and political scientist Lee Miringoff of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., emphasize that American presidential races are run state-by-state, not by a nationwide direct election.
The current three-way race adds an entirely new dimension to the state-by-state contest, with many of the old assumptions going right out the window, Dr. Miringoff says.
For example, in a two-way race, Bush could almost certainly carry Texas and Florida. But with Perot pulling heavily from white, middle-class, independent voters - who backed Bush in 1988 - much of the predictability is gone, Miringoff suggests.
Busby, however, says Bush still remains the odds-on favorite because of the Republican Party's built-in advantages in states that are critical to winning the presidency.
Busby explains that the strength Republican presidential candidates have built up over the years in regions like the South and the West will almost certainly give Bush a strong advantage in November. He thinks Perot will be factor in only a few states, such as Texas.
Hugh Winebrenner, a political analyst at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, also sees Bush as tough to beat. Clinton's "character flaws" aren't forgotten by Iowans, he says. Furthermore, if Republicans and independents see their votes for Perot helping Clinton, they are probably rational enough to go back to Bush on election day, Dr. Winebrenner predicts.