THE Bush campaign team is hoping that a late surge of support in key states will finally help the president overwhelm front-running Democrat Bill Clinton.
"Voters are not firmly committed," says Charles Black, a top strategist for President Bush. "Barely more than 50 percent have firmly made up their minds."
Yet Republican brows are furrowed as the election clock ticks rapidly toward Nov. 3. Daily tracking polls, both public and private, show Governor Clinton maintaining a wide margin over the president.
Mr. Black and other members of the Bush team see at least three ways to rescue the endangered Bush White House:
* Televised debates. Agreement over the weekend on four debates from Oct. 11 to Oct. 19, three presidential and one vice-presidential, opens a new opportunity for Bush. Expect the president, as underdog, to go on the attack.
* Ross Perot. The Texas billionaire, who is buying more than $1 million in prime-time network TV this week, adds another wild card to this race. Mr. Perot could divide the "anti-Bush" vote, and help the president slip back into office with only a plurality.
* Campaign advertising. Bush is flooding the airwaves with millions of dollars worth of TV ads, many attacking Governor Clinton personally on issues like his draft record. The impact could show up in the polls within 10 days, Bush strategists say.
Despite Clinton's double-digit lead, it is not too late for a Bush victory, particularly if he can create deep fears about the Arkansas governor, Black says.
To that end, at least two-thirds of Bush's advertising budget, estimated at $35 million to $40 million, will be used for strongly negative and anti-Clinton ads, Republican sources say.
Yet the gloom among some Republicans is palpable, including party operatives here in the capital. One says grimly:
"The prospects are not very good. The pendulum is swinging [away from the GOP] and it's being pushed by the economy. Too many people are too upset by George Bush."
Even Mr. Perot's entry into the race is viewed darkly by some Republican insiders.
They would prefer Perot out, thereby giving Bush a clear shot at Clinton in the final 29 days of this race.
A Republican insider confides: "If Perot's in the debates, it muddies the water. It's no longer man against man. It's man against man against man. It changes everything."
The first measurements of Perot's impact on this race indicate he may be a smaller factor than predicted. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup daily tracking poll showed Perot with just 8 percent support at the weekend. Clinton remained well in front with 51 percent, while Bush had 35 percent.
During the next few days, the president's principal hope will be his television advertising. At meetings here, campaign officials briefed reporters on the ads that are now showing across the country.
One of them, a 30-second spot entitled "Federal Taxes," blasts Clinton's promise to limit higher taxes to Americans with incomes of $200,000 or more.
Using specific examples of individual taxpayers, the ad charges that John Canes, a steamfitter earning $40,000 a year, could actually pay $1,088 more in taxes every year because of "Clinton economics." Lori Huntoon, a scientist who makes $55,000, could pay $2,072 more - and so forth.
Using calculations developed by the Treasury Department, Bush officials say that to raise the $150 billion in new revenue that Clinton promises, he would have to tax "virtually the entire middle class."
A "fact sheet" issued by the Bush campaign states: "Clinton claims that the top 2 percent of taxpayers are those with annual incomes of over $200,000.
This is simply not true. According to the [United States] Department of the Treasury, the top 2 percent begins with individuals with taxable incomes of $64,800 [or adjusted gross incomes of $76,000]."
Ron Brown, the Democratic Party chairman, hotly denies the ad's implications, and vows that Clinton's pledge of taxing only $200,000 and above is firm.
Mickey Kantor, the Clinton campaign chairman, says: "The ad is inaccurate. It is totally untrue.... The Clinton plan calls for a tax cut for the middle class."
A number of analysts, such as pollster Del Ali, say Bush's problem, even with his rich war chest for TV ads, is that the public may not be listening.
Tracking polls find that 48 percent of the voters say that there is "no chance" that they would vote for Bush next month. Even more - 56 percent - say they have an unfavorable opinion of the president.
Clinton's standing with the public seems more favorable. Only 32 percent say they could not vote for him. His unfavorability rating is 38 percent.
Perot, who once led the national polls, now finds that 72 percent of those surveyed say they could not support him.