CLINTON strategists now believe that independent candidate Ross Perot's threat to their lead over President Bush has stalled.
Mr. Perot's surge last week sent a tremor through a Clinton campaign for which the greatest challenge had become holding its edge against overconfidence and fatigue. "Our minds were beginning to go on autopilot," says Stan Greenberg, the Clinton campaign's ranking pollster.
Perot has shaved a couple of percentage points off Gov. Bill Clinton's support nationally. But the Texas billionaire's impact is uneven across the electoral map. He is costing Governor Clinton most heavily in the industrial Midwest, putting some states in more competitive range for President Bush, according to Clinton campaign polling.
But Dr. Greenberg also says that Perot's numbers in the polls have not moved since the night after the last presidential debate a week ago. Public-opinion surveys register Perot at between 15 and 22 percent of the vote.
Clinton strategists will keep monitoring the Perot factor closely. "We don't want the dynamic of this election to change," Greenberg says. But the focus of their efforts as they begin the remaining nine days before election day is on Bush. Top three priorities
The erasable board in the "war room" here - where the top pollsters, strategists, and quick-response staff members work - spells out the priority messages the campaign is focusing on:
"1. Change versus more of the same.
2. The economy, stupid.
3. Don't forget health care."
At this point, Clinton sees no further need to directly counter the major lines of attack from the Bush campaign: that Clinton would raise taxes and that he cannot be trusted as president.
Polls show some slippage in Clinton's credibility in the past month. According to a Gallup-CNN-USA Today poll, barely over half the public thinks he has enough honesty and integrity to serve as president - a 10 percentage point drop from a month ago.
Clinton strategists nonetheless feel that their candidate has passed through the worst charges the Bush campaign could level at him and survived. His debate performance successfully showed him to have the stature to be president, they believe. So the phase of the campaign built on reassuring voters about his public character is now over.
Clinton's travel schedule continues to show an aggressive electoral strategy. He spent much of the last few days in traditionally Republican states - including Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Nevada - that he does not depend on to win.
Over the weekend, Clinton hit Missouri, Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio, and Michigan. These states include some where Perot surged after the last debate and some that are true battleground states if the race is more competitive.
Today and tomorrow, Clinton is back in the erstwhile Republican heartland, this time North Carolina and Georgia.
Republican pollster Neal Newhouse sees this schedule as a sign of possible overconfidence in the Clinton campaign. "The guy's campaigning in Wyoming? Give me a break," he says. "If the gap starts to narrow, they're going to wish they had those days back big-time."
Talk surrounding the campaign, much of it from sympathetic Democrats, has moved past winning the election to seeking a strong mandate for a plan of action. Avoiding overconfidence
Campaign officials spurn such talk vigorously. Winning a mandate implies winning by large margins, notes senior strategist Paul Begala. "In a year when voters are feeling disenfranchised, the last thing we want to do is to make them feel we're taking them for granted," he says.
Furthermore, a strong current of conviction runs through the ranks of the campaign that the election will be close. It is less a conclusion based on data than an anxiety based on history and the unpredicted pitches and turns of this campaign.
"Look, we're Democrats," says another campaign official. "We've lost the last three and we're looking to win."
It is also a useful conviction, serving to keep a campaign running solidly ahead, alert and aggressive.
"A lot of the people out there have been out there before" with other Democratic campaigns, says field director Craig Smith. They have been disappointed so many times, "they are reluctant to take anything for granted."
"Bill [Clinton] has always taught us, because we've been campaigning with him for a long time: You never let up until the polls close," says Sheila Bronfman, director of a volunteer network of Arkansans who campaign for Clinton.
Clinton officials plan a couple of major speeches this week on the economy and national unity, the latter to energize minority voters and show that he can do so more credibly than Bush or Perot.