Where'd Bill Clinton Go?

THE other day a colleague cracked: "There's an obscure third-party candidate in the presidential race, all right - Bill Clinton."

The quip reflects the extent to which the Democratic Party's nominee for president of the United States has been relegated to the margin in press coverage of the campaign. With coverage dominated by President Bush's tailspin and Ross Perot's afterburners, Clinton has been treated like a sputtering Roman candle.

For the good of the political process, Clinton needs to find a way to make himself heard. Perhaps last Friday's televised "national town meeting" was a start.

Clinton's current invisibility is attributable primarily to three causes. First, media coverage of him during the primaries focused heavily on character and personal matters to the near exclusion of Clinton's message. Second, the Perot tidal wave has swept public attention before it. And third, Clinton has failed to sharpen his positions into a clear, thematically bright message.

Yet Clinton is talking a lot of sense about important issues facing America. Back when Paul Tsongas was in the race, he received kudos for laying out a comprehensive program for economic revitalization. Until he ran into the "character" buzzsaw, though, Clinton was also regarded as a substantive candidate, with views on issues like education, health care, and workforce retraining only slightly less detailed than Mr. Tsongas's.

This isn't an endorsement of Clinton or his positions. But this presidential race needs to be about issues; and of the three candidates, only Clinton seems to be capable of - or at least interested in - making it a debate on issues. Once that debate is fully joined, many voters no doubt will prefer the policies advocated by Bush or Perot. But until someone forces their hands, both Bush and Perot evidently intend to scurry away from specifics.

A campaign focusing on substance may be Clinton's political opportunity; it's also his historic responsibility, as he appears to be the candidate most concerned with something beyond just winning. We'll all benefit if he succeeds in thrusting himself back into the center of the race.

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