LONG ago, when the Vietnam war was dividing the United States and inflation was robbing workers' pocketbooks, much of Middle America abandoned the Democratic Party. Bill Clinton now is trying to win it back.
The Arkansas governor, addressing the concerns of average working Americans, promotes middle-class tax breaks, better education, and jobs. At the same time, Mr. Clinton is forcefully demonstrating his independence from powerful liberal interest groups, which have long dominated his party. Recently the governor has:
* Told a Las Vegas convention of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees that the federal government should cut its size by 100,000 employees over the next eight years.
* Criticized rap singer Sister Souljah for fanning racist feelings with her comments after the Los Angeles riots.
* Refused to back down on his comments about Sister Souljah, despite a strong counterattack by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who charged that Clinton had a "character flaw."
* Called for millions of welfare recipients to demonstrate greater responsibility by taking jobs to qualify for training and child care benefits.
* Supported a free-trade pact with Mexico, despite overwhelming opposition from the AFL-CIO, a traditionally strong ally of the Democratic Party.
Clinton's strategy contains a calculated risk. He could so alienate unions, blacks, Hispanics, and other pockets of Democratic strength that they might stay home on voting day.
But analysts say Clinton has little choice. After a string of losses, Democrats must find a way to win back middle-of-the-road white voters, who gave up on the Democrats and supported Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush. Without them, Clinton cannot win.
Del Ali, a vice president with Mason-Dixon Opinion Research, discounts the attacks on Clinton by the Rev. Mr. Jackson, Sister Souljah, and union leaders.
For too long, Democrats have "overrated the support of black voters and downplayed the middle-class, white, Reagan Democrats," Mr. Ali says. If Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic nominee, had used Clinton's current strategy, "the outcome could have been different," Ali says.
Although Clinton's recent comments have created sparks, Ali suggests that they also show that "the Democrats are coming back to their senses. It is not a high-risk strategy," he insists.
"Blacks have no [other] place to go," Ali concludes. "Ross Perot is still an unknown quantity. And Clinton has a [good] 12-year record on civil rights. So, realistically, where can they go? To Bush? No."
In recent months, Mr. Perot's high-flying campaign has overshadowed Clinton, but the governor has lately rebounded.
The most notable development was his public clash with Sister Souljah, whose provocative, pro-black rap music makes leaders, including Jackson, uncomfortable.
Following the Los Angeles riots, Sister Souljah, in trying to explain the thinking of inner city youth, said in an interview with the Washington Post: "I mean, if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people? You understand what I am saying?"
Later, she denounced Clinton for suggesting that she supported racism or violence. "I think that Governor Clinton is a dishonest person," she said on Cable Network News (CNN).
Clinton had used an appearance before Jackson's multiracial Rainbow Coalition to chastise the rap singer for her post-Los Angeles comments. He said of her statement: "If you took the words white and black and you reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech."
Sister Souljah countered the next day that when blacks kill blacks in Los Angeles, no one cares, but when they kill whites and $1 billion in property is destroyed, then they care.
Even Jackson concedes he is concerned with Sister Souljah's approach to racial relations. Her music contains angry language of the street, such as one song, which says: "I am African first, I am black first. I want what's good for me and my people first. And if my survival means your total destruction, then so be it."
Analysts see little risk for Clinton in speaking out against that kind of pain-filled anger. Meanwhile, Clinton has refined his economic plan, which includes a $200 billion Rebuild America Fund to create jobs, rebuild infrastructure, and help the cities.
Clinton would boost income taxes to a rate of 35 or 36 percent on Americans making more than $200,000 a year. He would also impose a millionaire's surtax and an alternative minimum tax and would tax profits made in the United States by foreign corporations. The higher income tax would raise $95 billion over five years; the corporate tax would raise $35 billion over four years.