Clinton Campaign Wary As Bush Plays Catch-Up

Challenger's staff struggles to stick to its game plan despite Bush `distractions'

AT 7:30 every evening, Clinton strategist Craig Smith and his staff of 30 take a break from their first 12 hours of work at the Little Rock Clinton-Gore headquarters to assess the day's events and the impact on their candidate.

Even though Democratic nominee Bill Clinton has at least sustained - if not lengthened - his 10-plus-point lead over incumbent President Bush, Mr. Smith, the intense and methodical director of the campaign operations in all 50 states, has plenty to worry about.

The evening meeting of the five so-called cluster groups - campaign managers and their assistants for the Western, Midwestern, industrial, Northeastern, and Southern states - reflects some of the camp's frustrations, such as trouble providing enough literature and campaign paraphernalia to help woo supporters.

But cluster leaders report that the toughest part about getting media attention and voter recognition for Clinton's proposed policies - from taxes to child care - is moving the US electorate beyond the distractions created by GOP attacks on Clinton's personal past and his record as governor.

The greater the mudslinging - and there has been plenty from both the Bush and Clinton camps - the more distractions from the campaign's planned events.

Clinton campaign press secretary DeeDee Meyers is undaunted by the diversions. "Yes, they have slowed down our ability to convey policies. But every single day Bill Clinton talks about the current state of the economy. Even if our health-care or economy message is heard only part of the time, you have to measure the success of the message - which isn't always as sharp as it could be - by its cumulative effect."

Tonight's 7:30 meeting could be a crucial one if the ultimate political monkey wrench - a reentry by Texas billionaire Ross Perot into the presidential race - is thrown into Clinton campaign plans.

Smith, campaign strategist James Carville, and other top advisers say that nothing, including a third candidate, will break their stride. The Clinton campaign's economic policy director, Gene Sperling, former special assistant to New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, concedes that the voter will find many similarities between Mr. Perot and Clinton as two candidates offering a break from the status quo.

But Mr. Sperling says the campaign will stress that Perot's interest in bringing the deficit down immediately will hurt economic growth in the short term, while Clinton's investment focus will generate more economic activity and create jobs. He says he's not troubled by Perot. "It's been a crazy year," he says, grinning. "We just have to keep our eye on the prize."

Hovering around Clinton's Arkansas this week by visiting six neighboring states and repeating visits to the "rust belt" and other areas Bush once relied on for support, the president tried to fix American voter focus on Clinton's failures in Arkansas.

RUNNING down the now-familiar counter-arguments to Republican claims about Arkansas's high poverty and low education levels and looking to a possible "formidable" Perot challenge, assistant campaign chairman Skip Rutherford says that "there's one thing about our campaign: It's very poised, very pro-active."

The Clinton organization coordinates constantly with the Democratic National Committee, which runs a separate but complementary operation. "The DNC runs phone banks, direct mail, and increases the Democratic voter base by helping to register and target voters," Smith says. Roughly 500 people across the country work for the DNC state-coordinated campaign; by election day, Smith says, that number will reach 3,000. The Clinton-Gore field staff, headed by Smith, numbers two or three per state. "Both the DNC and the Clinton staff have GOTV (Get-out-the-vote) goals - our GOTV means to get-on-television. We make sure the message is hammered home every day."

After Mr. Carville helps establish what is on the national news, such as Clinton's current health-care "message" that calls for private employers to pay for health insurance and supplemental government health-care coverage for the unemployed, Smith's shop takes it local. "We leave it up to the states - they may get the head of the legislative health committee or nurses for Clinton-Gore to hold a press conference on the Clinton proposal."

The two-tiered message system is designed to hit voters twice - once on the national news, and then again on the local news. "The Clinton staff piggybacks on local politicians - such as Sens. Sam Nunn in Georgia or Harris Wofford in Pennsylvania" using faces the voters are familiar with. "Democrats have not taken this approach traditionally - we're much more coordinated than the Dukakis or Carter campaign. We're much more aggressive with the message," Smith says. "And we won't let up."

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