TALK of a Bill Clinton electoral sweep has grown muted in this final week of the campaign. The polls, so long in the governor's favor, have taken a pronounced shift - not so much toward George Bush as toward independent Ross Perot. The effect, though, has been to shrink the gap between the major-party candidates. A 13-19 point Clinton spread has narrowed to 5-8 points.
It would be a mistake to attribute this movement solely to Mr. Perot's high-rolling surge in campaigning. The Texan's 30-minute TV ads have drawn surprisingly large audiences, but serious doubts remain about his ability to win. Lots of voters may still conclude that a vote for Perot is a wasted vote. And this week's stories about Perot's allegations of Republican dirty tricks aimed at his family - allegations he admits he can't prove - will reinforce the image of someone hooked on cloak-and-dagger intrig ues.
More than a surge toward Perot, the movement in public opinion this week probably reflects a final sorting out of ambivalent feelings regarding the other candidates. Mr. Bush's campaign is blitzing the country with the message that Mr. Clinton is not to be trusted with the country's top job. Constant hammering on the "trust" issue could erode Clinton's standing - but enough to overcome his persistent lead? Not a single national survey since the Democratic convention in August - some 137 of them - has sho wn the president in front.
The biggest hurdle for Bush remains the perception that he has done little to address economic distress. In places like California - with its bonanza of electoral votes - that perception is so ingrained that no amount of ambivalence about Clinton is likely to nudge voters toward Bush. In the crucial electoral battleground of the Midwest, however, there could be substantial last-minute swings.
The tightening race should mean a big turnout, including record numbers of newly registered voters. Looming over the election are such factors as a widespread distaste for incumbents and an awareness that the world has radically changed in recent years. The voters' decision next Tuesday will be an unusually complex one that could elude the probing of pollsters.