AMERICA'S campaign for the White House rises to a crescendo Sunday night with the first of four debates that could sharply alter the course of the race.
Two politicians and a Texas businessman - each with his own special vision of the nation's future - will appeal to millions of voters worried about jobs, health care, crime, and the standard of living. Each of the candidates, George Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot, will be trying to wrest control of the three-way, 90-minute contest, and spell out his agenda.
Governor Clinton, first in the polls, is expected to hammer on America's need for more jobs, an issue on which Republican pollster Richard Wirthlin finds that the governor has an overwhelming 41 percent advantage over Mr. Bush.
The president, whose nationwide support has stalled in the middle of the 30 percent range, will likely emphasize his experience as an international leader and his credentials as commander in chief. Both are areas where he leads Clinton.
Mr. Perot, last in the polls, will pound away at the federal government's $333 billion budget deficit, his staff says. He will also probably denounce the "mess in Washington."
But the $64 question is: Will Perot try to pin blame on Bush or the Democrats? Although Bush and Clinton jockeyed for weeks before agreeing to have debates in St. Louis; Richmond, Va.; and East Lansing, Mich. (plus a vice presidential debate in Atlanta on Tuesday), there was very little doubt among experts that the debates would take place.
The president had little choice. Trailing by 10 points nationwide (and by 20 points in big states like Illinois, New York, and California), he had to take the initiative, even though it entails serious risks.
Conventional wisdom says that the moment Clinton steps onto the stage with Bush and looks him in the eye (Clinton is 6-feet, 2-1/2-inches tall; Bush is 6 feet 2), he takes on an aura of equality with the president.
Yet Bush is being pushed onto the St. Louis stage, with all its dangers, by the looming threat of a Clinton landslide. Richard Cheney, the current defense secretary, once explained why, in similar circumstances, President Gerald Ford was so willing to meet Gov. Jimmy Carter in debates in 1976:
"Frankly, we would have been delighted ... to have been perceived on `equal' terms."
Also, time is running out, and television may be the only vehicle that can save the Bush presidency. In his study of the Ford-Carter race, which the Georgia governor once led by more than 30 points, Mr. Cheney, who was Ford's chief of staff, said:
"Given the size of Governor Carter's lead, we would have to change the voting intentions of literally millions of Americans by election day.... Any activity which did not receive extensive television coverage was likely to be wasted activity."
Bush's situation is similar, and TV may be his last hope. The debates, which can easily draw more than 100 million viewers, are the nuclear weapons of American politics: likely to give the greatest advantage, or do the greatest harm, in one swift blow.
Trailing as he is, Bush must use the most powerful munitions he has, whatever the risks.
The Wirthlin poll, taken last month among 1,005 adults, indicates where Bush and Clinton can make their greatest gains.
The job shortage is a Clinton issue, but so is health care, on which he has a 40-point net advantage over the president. Clinton has convinced Americans that he cares more about them, and that he understands them far better than Bush and his Washington team, Wirthlin reports.
What has catapulted Clinton into his large lead is that the jobs issue is far and away the one most on the minds of voters. At Clinton rallies in Maryland, Florida, and other states, one hears from voters that, as one put it this week, "If the White House wants to support family values, get mom and dad good jobs."
Against that, Bush can talk about his record in the Persian Gulf war, about the recent declines in the unemployment rate, and about his plan for health care. At the same time, Bush must somehow shake voters' growing confidence in Clinton.
He continues to insist that Clinton can't be trusted. In a television interview Wednesday night, the president criticized Clinton for participating in anti-Vietnam War protests in England and traveling to the Soviet Union with other Oxford students.
Meanwhile, Perot is running 30-minute commercials, Tuesday on CBS-TV and again tonight on ABC-TV, to explain his views of America's economic problems. The first show drew a reported 20 million to 25 million viewers.