ONLY one week into August, and the Republican candidate for president has already accused the Democrat of proposing a major tax increase.
In other campaign years, in other Augusts, that would make news. But this week, a cacophony of campaign messages blared, dominated by a taunting, playground-style memo on Bill Clinton by a Bush campaign official.
Not since 1948 at least has a presidential election reached such intensity so early in the year. With the possible exception of the 1948 run on the presidency by the Dixiecrats (breakaway Southern Democrats), says Richard Scher, a University of Florida political scientist, "I can't think of a parallel in this century."
Traditionally these weeks are a quiet stretch for regrouping and force-gathering between conventions. The bell does not usually ring until Labor Day, the unofficial beginning of the general election campaign. But President Bush is already spending nearly half his time on the campaign trail, and Governor Clinton is on his second post-convention bus tour.
Neither side feels it can afford to wait - to hold anything back. Mr. Bush is too far behind Mr. Clinton in the polls. And Clinton has to move from under the weight of too much losing Democratic history.
The pressure on Bush has increased in a week when, normally, the rise in popularity the Democrats took from their convention would have been expected to settle somewhat. But an ABC News-Washington Post poll released Wednesday put Bush's job-approval rating at its lowest ebb yet - 33 percent.
Talk of bouncing Dan Quayle from the ticket was squelched. But calls by conservatives for Bush himself to stand down from the ticket gained momentum.
Conservative columnist George Will started it. The Orange County (Calif.) Register, whose editorial page is a farm club for conservative writers, followed suit this week, as did the Manchester (N.H.) Union-Leader newspaper. Some conservative activists, including Burton Pines, chairman of the National Center for Public Policy Research, say Bush should step aside.
"I don't think he can beat Bill Clinton," Mr. Pines said at a Monitor breakfast this week, adding that only through drastic action does Bush stand a chance.
No one actually expects Bush to step aside. But these catcalls reflect the frustration and sense of betrayal he has aroused among right-wing Republicans.
The sense of betrayal runs beyond the right. Bush's "read my lips" vow not to raise taxes is "probably the most remembered phrase in America," notes Clinton pollster and University of California, San Diego, political scientist Samuel Popkin.
The irony is that the public cynicism the broken vow caused "is a tremendous problem for all of us," says Dr. Popkin. When voters translate that cynicism into a sweeping distrust of government and politics, it hurts Democrats - still the party of government - more than Republicans.
A larger character issue in the campaign, in addition to that of private morality, is the question of sincerity and commitment of the candidates. Some voters see both as politicians more concerned with their popularity than their principles.
Bush is attacking this problem straight on. In the past few weeks, he has been steadily building on the theme of trust. He speaks regularly on the stump of his reliability in times of crisis. Principle is a growing theme as he moves the argument from "change," still a refrain, to the principles that guide change.
In New York on Wednesday, he spoke of "moral purpose," "moral standards," "moral fiber," a "moral compass," and of the need for a president to set a "moral tone" for the nation. On the abortion issue, he said: "I am going to stand on my conscience and let my conscience be my guide," even though the political costs may be "enormous."
Popkin says the essential task for Bush in this campaign is to overcome gridlock and paralysis in Washington and show he can get something done. The task for Clinton, he says, is to show he is strong enough to overcome the snares of interest groups and the Democratic reputation for big-government spending.
Jim Pinkerton, who runs Bush-Quayle research, says he believes this campaign will turn on the point that Americans "don't want to turn the clock back to the bad old days of tax and spend."
Bush is already working that point against Clinton, saying that Clinton's economic plan contains $150 billion worth of tax increases. "Utter nonsense," responds Clinton's economic adviser, Robert Shapiro. Clinton would match those new taxes on the wealthiest taxpayers and the US profits of foreign companies with an equal tax cut for middle-class families and for new business investment.