IT'S time for Republicans to start worrying - just a little.
Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton has bounded out of the Democratic National Convention as if he has springs in his shoes. With his running mate, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee, in tow, Mr. Clinton's six-bus campaign caravan is charging through seven states, including West Virginia and Ohio today. He's hunting for votes from Reagan Democrats and former Perot supporters.
Meanwhile, the national political polls are surprising everyone, including Bob Teeter, campaign chairman for President Bush. Three polls over the weekend put Clinton a country mile ahead of Mr. Bush and proved that the Democratic convention made a big hit with voters. (Perot troops in disarray, Page 8.)
Depending on the source, Clinton and Gore were ahead of Bush and Quayle by as much as 20 points (Time/CNN), 24 points (CBS/New York Times), or 27 points (Newsweek). Democrats were euphoric. But experts doubt this pleasant moment will last very long. "This is the peak, the high point for the Democratic candidates," says Claiborne Darden Jr., an Atlanta pollster. "I don't get swayed [by polls] in presidential elections until after the Republican convention [in August]."
Mr. Darden was similarly - and correctly - cautious after the 1988 Democratic convention, when Michael Dukakis raced to a 17-point lead over Bush. At the time, Darden said flatly it wouldn't last, and it didn't. Bush, after his "read my lips, no new taxes" speech one month later, moved permanently ahead.
Chairman Teeter, speaking for the Bush campaign, also reminded reporters of the Dukakis race. And he pointed out that in 1976, Republicans came within an eyelash of reversing a huge, 33-point lead held by Jimmy Carter over Gerald Ford.
Will 1992 be different? Despite Clinton's lead, Darden says: "This is still totally George Bush's election to lose.
"If Bush's performance is mediocre, we've got a horse race-and-a-half," Darden says, explaining: "The Democrats had by far their best convention in half a generation. They avoided that usual acrimony with the liberals, with [Sen. Edward] Kennedy, Jerry Brown, or whoever.
"Second, they made a significant effort to position the Democratic ticket as moderate. This is the first time I can remember that this has happened. It was just a tremendous improvement."
Political scientist Merle Black, an authority on Southern politics, warns that the South, the nation's largest electoral prize, won't be easy for the party, even with two Southerners at the head of the Democratic ticket. The reason: the Democrats must win back Southern white voters, who have abandoned them in droves during the past 25 years. Particularly important are blue-collar, pickup-driving, rifle-in-the-back-window Southerners - what Darden calls "the Bubba vote."
"Bubba doesn't think much of red ribbons," Darden says. The ribbons were worn by many Democratic convention speakers to show solidarity with victims of AIDS. "The gay and lesbian signs popping up and down [at the convention] also have a negative appeal to the average American," Darden says.
Also, the pro-choice stance was fine with most Southerners, but speakers "probably overdid it," like a broken record, he says.
To keep Bubba away from the Clinton-Gore ticket, Dr. Black thinks the Bush campaign will pound Clinton on the draft issue. Clinton, a college student during the Vietnam War, stayed out of the military by claiming he was planning to enter a Reserve Officers Training Corps program. He never did. In most of the South, military service is equated with patriotism - as reflected in Tennessee's proud motto, "The Volunteer State."
Much of the contest in the next month will focus on Perot supporters, who are now looking for a new home. The Newsweek poll says that, at this moment, 55 percent of Perot supporters lean toward Clinton, 32 percent toward Bush, and 9 percent are undecided.
While pleased with those numbers, top Clinton aides are even more delighted with Clinton's improved personal standing with voters. Prior to the convention, nearly half the voters (49 percent) held an unfavorable view of Clinton, according to a Gallup survey. That has now declined to 29 percent.
Meanwhile, Bush's unfavorable rating has grown from 45 percent (pre-convention) to 56 percent. It is those numbers that campaign strategists consider most indicative of how the contest is unfolding.
Perot's withdrawal changes the geography of this election. Much of the Texas billionaire's strength was concentrated in the South and West, which are Bush's base. With Perot out, the largest threat to Bush's dominance of those two regions has vanished, and he is free to compete one-on-one against Clinton in territory that Republican presidents have dominated for the past 12 years.