TWO Democratic Party volunteers who attended the national convention in New York were discussing Bill Clinton's chances against George Bush. One was terribly worried: Would 1992 be like 1988?
"Remember the last campaign?" he asked. "We were ahead then, too, by 17 points, but Bush tore up [Democratic nominee Michael] Dukakis."
"This time it will be different," the other replied firmly.
"This time Bush has a record. All we have to do is talk about that. Just look at this:
"He promised to be the education president. But he's not.
"He promised to be the environmental president. But he's not.
"He promised not to raise taxes. But he did.
"He promised to create 15 million new jobs. But he didn't."
Democratic leaders, like those two young volunteers, hope 1992 will be different. But they are taking no chances. They are running a campaign that tries to reverse, item by item, every mistake Mr. Dukakis made four years ago.
Governor Clinton and his running mate, Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr., hit the ground running after their New York convention with a six-day bus swing through America's industrial heart- land. The results were gratifying: extensive TV and newspaper coverage; large, excited crowds; and pictures of Clinton, in his shirtsleeves, talking to average voters about jobs and education.
Four years ago, Dukakis took a brief trip after the convention, but then went on vacation. Clinton vows to campaign almost nonstop until election day.
REPUBLICANS, alarmed by Clinton's rapid rise in the polls, are striking back. At a Monitor breakfast this week, Charles Black, a senior adviser to the Bush-Quayle campaign, joined a chorus of Bush surrogates who are attacking Clinton on several fronts.
Mr. Black charged that Clinton was "in bed" with the status quo in Congress. Black associated Clinton with Senator Gore's liberal voting record, which he said was marked by "environmental extremism." He criticized Clinton's inexperience on the world stage.
Sen. Jake Garn (R) of Utah also chimed in, faulting Clinton for draft avoidance during the Vietnam War.
But unlike 1988, when Governor Dukakis absorbed such political pounding without a murmur, Clinton immediately counterattacked. Of Senator Garn's remarks, he told one television network: "If Jake Garn is right, then [Defense Secretary] Dick Cheney and [Vice President] Dan Quayle and George Bush's sons can't hold national office." None of them served in Vietnam.
At another point, Clinton said of Bush and Quayle: "They can't run on their record. They can't run on their vision. All they can do is run us down."
Republicans sense that Clinton won't fall as easily as Dukakis. So within days, Secretary of State James Baker III is expected to leave his Cabinet post to take over the reins of the president's reelection effort. It is hoped that Mr. Baker can sharpen the president's message, helping Bush focus on a few powerful themes.
Talk also began circulating that if Clinton remains in front, Quayle might be replaced on the ticket, perhaps by Secretary Cheney or Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Yet in the long run, campaign maneuvering may be far less important in this race than the hard economic numbers, which are grim.
Black acknowledges that the situation is serious: "The economy is bad. The statistics show that the economy is growing but ... in the perception of the voters, it is bad ... and that's the only thing that matters for planning a political campaign."
Democrats are driving the point home. They charge Bush with having the worst economic record since another Republican, Herbert Hoover, served in the White House from 1929 to 1933.
Four years ago, in his acceptance speech, Bush had high hopes for the economy. He promised that if he won, America would have economic growth "from the hollows of Kentucky to the sunlit streets of Denver, from the suburbs of Chicago to the broad avenues of New York."
He vowed: "We know how. We've done it. And if we continue to grow at our current rate, we will be able to produce 30 million jobs in the next eight years."
But government figures show that the GOP has fallen far short of its goals. Since Bush took office, the number of new, full-time jobs has risen only 419,000, while part-time jobs grew by 469,000.
Meanwhile, the unemployment rate has risen from 5.4 percent to 7.8 percent. The number of unemployed has grown by 3,304,000. The number of "discouraged workers" - those who have given up looking for jobs - has risen from 882,000 to the current 1,125,000.