THE 1992 contest for the presidency was turning into a rare 50-state race. For the first time in decades, virtually every region, every state, every corner of the United States could have become a hard-fought battleground in an unusual three-way campaign.
But Ross Perot's withdrawal yesterday returned the contest to the familiar GOP/Democratic pattern. Bill Clinton, the Democratic nominee, had been counting on Perot to siphon off GOP votes in important states such as Florida, Texas, New Jersey, and Colorado, all once expected to go to President Bush.
Leaving New York City today, however, Clinton will cast an anxious glance over his shoulder at the Empire State, and at New England. New York Gov. Mario Cuomo's ringing endorsement Wednesday night at the packed convention hall will give the Arkansas governor a lift here, but the Northeast remains Clinton's weakest region. Cultural differences and suspicions about Clinton's integrity and morality are lingering problems from the primaries in this area, says Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin.
Just hours after accepting his party's nomination, Clinton set out with his vice presidential nominee, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee, on an eight-day bus trip designed to go after a string of traditional Republican strongholds. Their campaign swing will pass through cities and hamlets in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri. In 1988, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis carried only one of those, West Virginia.
A 50-state campaign would put extraordinary strain on all the candidates, including President Bush. In 1984, President Reagan was able to focus on just 12 pivotal states in his reelection bid against Walter Mondale.
But Richard Wirthlin, a Republican strategist who helped Mr. Reagan plot his campaign that year, says: "Today, every state has to be considered, which is a tremendous burden on ... resources, time, and so forth."
In this unusual political environment, the key to a Clinton victory could be Mr. Perot. The Texas billionaire draws strength from both Republicans and Democrats; but his hard-core support, estimated at 15 percent of all voters, lies with conservative Republicans.
These conservatives backed Patrick Buchanan in the spring GOP presidential primaries, but they would have trouble backing Clinton.
Perot gives them an acceptable alternative to Bush.
Looking at the race from his post in Atlanta, political scientist Merle Black says of this three-candidate campaign: "It will produce a real contest in the South. Bush does not have it locked up at all."
Tom Cronin, a political scientist based in Colorado, makes a similar comment: "The only way Clinton can conceivably win in states like Colorado or Utah or Idaho or Arizona is if Perot is there, getting 20 percent. Perot is an asset [for Clinton] in the South and the Southwest and the Rocky Mountain states."
Perot's importance to Clinton explains why little criticism of the Texan was heard at this week's Democratic National Convention.
Pollster Hart says bluntly that the "optimal" scenario for Democrats would leave Perot in the race, drawing heavily from Bush in states like Texas.
Assuming that Perot remains a strong factor, analysts are able to piece together the outlines of a strategy that could put Clinton into the White House in January.
Dr. Cronin says Clinton's starting place should probably be the 10 states, plus the District of Columbia, that Mr. Dukakis carried for the Democrats in 1988.
That means Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii in the West; Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin in the Midwest; and New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and West Virginia, plus the District of Columbia, in the East.
Together, those states would give Clinton a little more than one-third of the 270 electoral votes he needs. From there, Clinton "has put his aces on the South," says Dr. Wirthlin. Clinton's Southern strategy became obvious with the selection of his Tennessee running mate. Senator Gore gives the Democrats a real lift in Dixie, Wirthlin says.
But the impact will not be uniform in the region. The Clinton-Gore ticket's prospects look brightest in Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, and Kentucky. They are more tenuous in the Old South, including Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. And they are shakiest in Florida, Texas, and Virginia.
Then comes California, an absolute must for a Clinton victory, according to his top strategist, James Carville. Thereafter, Clinton needs several megastates, like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.