Clinton's Bounce, Bush's Rebound?

WHAT a difference a day makes! Up until the day Ross Perot dropped out, the Democrats' leading figures were saying they liked the 3-man race - that Bill Clinton benefited from it.

At breakfasts and luncheons at the Democratic convention sponsored by the Monitor, Democratic leaders Ron Brown, John White, and Tom Foley indicated they were satisfied that Clinton was better off with Perot in the battle. Two of Clinton's top campaign people, James Carville and Mickey Kantor, made it clear they thought Clinton would prosper in a 3-way contest.

Then Perot's numbing announcement sparked a torrent of speculation among both politicians and media: Who would benefit from the change? Some observers said President Bush, others Clinton. The polls, however, soon began to indicate that considerably more of the Perot drop-off would go to Clinton.

Then the same Democratic leaders and Clinton spokesmen we had talked to earlier started singing a different tune: Clinton was far better off with Perot gone. What a difference a day makes!

With the first post-convention polls showing Clinton with a 24-point lead over Bush - a substantial amount of that coming from former Perot backers - Democratic opinion in the wake of Perot's departure could prove correct.

Clinton was even in the polls, tied with Bush and Perot, as the convention began. His bounce of 24 points was the biggest gain a candidate has made at a convention in the 50 years such measurements have been taken.

As I listened to elated conventioneers leaving New York I heard virtual shouts of victory. Bill Clinton was a winner, a sure winner. They had loved his choice of running mate, and they were gushing over his acceptance speech. If parts of that speech had become a little too personal, and if Clinton may have once again talked a bit too long, no one was mentioning it.

I recalled hearing similar optimism expressed by people leaving the convention hall in Atlanta four years ago. Michael Dukakis looked particularly good to those who nominated him. And that opinion was confirmed by post-convention polls showing the Massachusetts governor with a 17-point lead over Bush. True, the convention "bounce" was only 9 points. Dukakis had held an 8-point edge over Bush when the convention began.

We all remember what happened to Dukakis. Bush was able to erase that Dukakis lead with a sparkling performance at the Republican convention. What happened after that need not be mentioned. Even Dukakis's closest supporters came to agree that their candidate just wasn't up to the challenge.

Let's look at the early peel-off of Perot supporters that went mostly to Clinton. At one of the Monitor's convention breakfasts, pollster Peter Hart had talked of what would happen if Perot stepped out. He indicated that Clinton would benefit most from those who left first. But he talked of the hard-core of Perot supporters being conservatives - more likely to go to Bush.

So the race is far from over, despite the euphoria among many Democrats.

With Perot in, the Democrats had a better chance of invading the GOP's strongholds in recent presidential contests: the South and West. Now they may lose those regions again, even though two Southerners on their ticket may give them a chance of doing better in the South.

The problem for President Bush is that he doesn't seem to be the same man who emerged so appealingly from the last GOP convention. In the public eye he's not even the man of a year ago, when he was apparently "unbeatable" following the Gulf war.

Bush has been beaten down by a recession that just won't stop. Even to many Republicans he has begun to be viewed as a president who simply can't cope. "Our family's construction business is down," a woman told me the other day. "I don't know whether I will be able to vote for Bush again this time." She's an elder-citizen, pro-life Roman Catholic who loved Ronald Reagan. I thought afterward that if Bush can't hold this woman's vote, he's in quite a bit of trouble.

So it's not over. Bush can still win. But he must make a spectacular comeback - even more spectacular than the one he started four years ago in New Orleans.

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