ALTHOUGH a new poll shows the Clinton-Gore ticket leading Bush-Quayle by 21 percentage points, Democratic vice-presidential candidate Al Gore claims no illusions that victory is within grasp.
"We have a long way to go and a hard fight, and we don't take the poll seriously," he said at a Monitor breakfast Sept. 22.
Averaging recent polls together, the Democrats run about 12 percentage points ahead, so the larger spread in the Washington Post-ABC News poll may be exaggerated.
The jockeying over arranging debate rules between the candidates now is taking the form of a kind of charade. The first presidential debate, scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 22, by a bipartisan commission, passed with only Bill Clinton on hand to dramatize President Bush's refusal to attend.
Governor Clinton plans the same move next week. Since Mr. Bush did not respond to the commissions's invitation for the first debate, the commission rescheduled the first debate for next week in Louisville, Ky.
Tennessee Senator Gore says that if Bush also refuses that debate, Clinton will again go to the site on his own. "Governor Clinton will be there ready to debate," says Gore.
The conventional wisdom of campaign strategists is that challengers and underdogs seek debates to raise their stature and throw a wild card into the campaign. Incumbents and front-runners seek to minimize them.
Bush is following the traditional incumbent strategy. But he is also an underdog who has shown no movement yet to close the distance with the Democrats. It is no longer clear who will need the debates more, and the chance they represent to shake up a race.
"We want debates," says Gore, because "they serve the interests of the American people."
"The politics of it are too complicated for me. The best way to look at it is through the substance."
The Bush campaign, of course, also says it wants debates, but under a more controlled set of rules.