WATCH tonight's final debate, urges Vince Breglio, a Republican pollster. This is the moment President Bush must try for a knockout blow against Gov. Bill Clinton.
Like many other Republicans, Mr. Breglio concedes the struggle is growing more difficult every day for Mr. Bush. Most of the public opinion polls seem frozen, with Governor Clinton about 12 points ahead. Nothing Bush has tried has worked.
With just two weeks left, Republican insiders say their best hopes for stopping Clinton are these:
* The character issue. Many voters call it mud-slinging, but Republicans say Bush cannot let up on issues like Clinton's avoidance of military service during the Vietnam War.
* The tax-and-spend issue. Clinton has proposed higher taxes on families earning more than $200,000 a year. Bush is trying to convince voters that the entire middle class could be threatened with higher taxes if Clinton gets all the new spending programs he wants.
* The John Major effect. Earlier this year in Britain, Conservative Party leader Major kept his job as prime minister even though he won just over 40 percent of the vote. Like Bush, Mr. Major had two opponents, who split the vote and allowed him to slip back into office with only a plurality.
* The "coming home" effect. Millions of Republicans - nearly one-third of them - currently are supporting either Clinton or businessman Ross Perot. If history is any guide, many of them will have a change of heart by Nov. 3 and return to their roots.
Frank Fahrenkopf, a former GOP national chairman, says of the "coming home" phenomenon: "It will be interesting to see in this last seven to 10 days. What we're hoping is that when people reach up for that [voting] button, they say to themselves: `Do I really, really want to replace George Bush with Bill Clinton?' "
Many will answer that question with a "no," Mr. Fahrenkopf says, because they will ultimately feel more comfortable with the president.
Charles Black, a senior Bush campaign aide, said at a recent Monitor luncheon that despite all the gloom and doom in the press, there are some hopeful signs.
While most polls show no movement, some do.
For instance, the ABC News tracking poll reported that Clinton's lead over Bush shrank from 14 points to just seven points in four days.
The Campaign Hotline tracking poll showed Clinton's margin declining from 15 points to six points over seven days.
"We're making some progress," Mr. Black says. He calls the debates a "four-part mini-series," the full effects of which won't be completely apparent until later this week.
Mary Matalin, the Bush political director, says the president hopes to achieve two principal goals with these four debates, which are drawing from 76 million to 90 million viewers each.
In last Thursday night's Richmond debate, Bush tried to carve out clear policy differences with Clinton on taxes, spending, health care, crime legislation, term limits for members of Congress, the line-item veto, and a balanced-budget amendment.
On every one of these issues, Bush came out ahead with voters, Ms. Matalin insists. Republican strategists argue that whenever a clear policy line is drawn between Clinton and Bush, the president wins.
The other primary goal is to raise doubts about Clinton's character, although Matalin accuses the media of blowing the character issue out of proportion:
"You all are the ones saying ... the only way we can win is to expose Bill Clinton for what he is," she says. "The character issue speaks for itself."
But Neil Newhouse, a veteran Republican pollster, says what many in the GOP are admitting privately: "Bush has to present a stronger case to the voters. He has to do it very pointedly and with passion. He has to go to the character issue. With just over two weeks left, you have to move some numbers."
Breglio agrees. "Bush must keep the pressure on Bill Clinton on the trust issue," he says. "There remain, even among those who are now supporting Bill Clinton, some concerns over Bill Clinton's character."
Nonpartisan observers suggest Bush's best hope, however, may rest with an unexpected ally: Mr. Perot.
Larry Hugick, a Gallup pollster, says: "The only way Bush could win is with the algebra of a three-way race, with Perot being important enough to pull Clinton down and help Bush squeak through."
He continues: "Two things have to happen. People have to reassess their opinions of Bill Clinton. And Ross Perot has to get some kind of momentum in the final weeks. Unfortunately for Bush, these things are pretty much out of his control."