First-Half Scrimmage

PRESIDENTIAL politics, like football, is a game of cumulative effects.

It's a truism that many football games are won or lost in the waning moments with a dramatic pass, a goal-line stand, or a heartbreaking turnover. Those climactic events dominate the postgame analysis; forgotten is the workmanlike drive for a field goal in the first quarter or the exchange of punts in what seemed like a sluggish second period. But savvy fans know that in those earlier back-and-forths the teams were finding out what plays worked and probing for opponents' vulnerabilities, building the bas e for the fourth-quarter heroics.

Since Labor Day is the official "kickoff" for America's presidential campaigns, that makes September, in the metaphor, the first half. It's not the exciting part of a race (strategists and journalists never speculate about a "September surprise"), and when the month ends nothing will be decided. Come Sept. 30, even insightful political observers may not know what the month's events portend for the outcome.

That doesn't mean that September is politically inconsequential. Important things will be happening - though not necessarily the things picked up by the press. Before it's widely perceived, one campaign will be "establishing its running game," or the other will be "getting control of the line of scrimmage."

George Bush and Bill Clinton, with their running mates and campaign staffs, are out there every day, butting heads, trying this and that. If something works - a speech theme, an attack on the opponent, an ad - it will be kept in the playbook; if not, it will be discarded. Or a successful tactic may be held in reserve, not to be used again until the last debate or the last weekend before Nov. 3.

Take Bush's charge that as governor of Arkansas Clinton raised taxes 128 times. The figure was arrived at through highly dubious definitions of "tax" and deliberate manipulation of the data. How will that play six or eight weeks from now, in the campaign's fourth quarter? Will the charge have aided Bush's attempt to depict Clinton as a tax-and-spend liberal, or will the sneaky methodology have backfired against Bush's claim to "trust"?

Or what about "family values"? The Republicans' overkill on the issue in Houston now appears to have been a blunder, from which Bush has backed away.

But maybe GOP pollsters have discovered that with some constituencies "family values" is a touchdown pass, to be thrown the last week of October.

The month will see many trivial episodes that will have no bearing on the election results - like the candidate's tug-of-war Monday over the mantle of Harry Truman. But other September events may turn out to be defining moments: If Bush's major speech on the economy in Detroit yesterday failed to convince voters that he has a credible plan to end the recession, he may have surrendered that issue for the duration.

For many voters, though, election decisions are the product of cumulative impressions. Even voters who don't make up their minds until the last minute rarely decide on the basis of a single event. When they finally tilt, it's usually owing to a candidate's performance over the course of the long, grueling campaign.

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