Presidential Hopefuls Seek Winning Edge in Final Surge

THE year-long presidential campaign has come down to a desperate battle for electoral votes in the waning days of campaign '92.

Richard Wirthlin, a senior Republican pollster, says the strategies of President Bush and Gov. Bill Clinton are "pretty transparent" as they crisscross the country in a final, frantic dash for support.

Their independent rival, Ross Perot, after a one-day foray into the mid-Atlantic states, has reverted mostly to network television as the quickest, most effective way to reach millions of voters as the clock runs out.

In the closing days of this race:

* Governor Clinton has hopscotched along the West Coast to firm up his lead; barnstormed across key Southern states, where he hopes to upset the president; and poured heavy resources into the all-important Midwest.

* President Bush has gone by plane and train across the South, which is a "must win" region for him; shored up support in the Rocky Mountains; and, like Clinton, put his greatest effort into the Midwest.

* Mr. Perot, hoping to make up for lost time, has saturated television with commercials and 30-minute "infomercials" designed to rally Americans who are frightened and angry about the $4 trillion national debt and lost jobs.

Mr. Wirthlin says the itineraries of Clinton and Bush tell almost everything about how the governor and the president hope to win this election.

The president has virtually ignored huge states like California, New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, which are seen as solidly in Clinton's column. Instead, he is trying to put a lock on the South and the Rocky Mountain states, while assembling enough Midwestern swing states to give him the 270 electoral votes needed to win.

In the most recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup tracking poll, Bush trails Clinton by 6 points, much closer than a week ago. Senior Republican strategists say Bush is doing even better in the states he needs to win.

Vice President Dan Quayle predicts that Bush will capture Florida, Texas, and other parts of the South, except for Arkansas. When that is combined with the mountain states and Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana, Mr. Quayle says he is optimistic.

Bush got another boost this week when the latest figures showed the American economy growing at a 2.7 percent rate in the July-September quarter. He quickly reminded Ohio audiences that United States growth now exceeds that of Germany and Japan.

Perot plays a big role in Bush's electoral plans. That becomes apparent when one sees all the effort the president is pouring into Iowa, a state that supported Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988. Across the Midwest, Perot is shrinking Clinton's lead and putting states like Iowa and Ohio within Bush's reach.

Clinton's coast-to-coast effort is less focused than Bush's, and Republicans say the governor may rue the time he spent this late in the campaign in states he does not need, such as Montana and Wyoming.

But as Clinton's margin over Bush grows smaller, his campaign has zeroed in on the critical battlegrounds, including Ohio, Michigan, and New Jersey today.

Analysts characterize Clinton's campaign strategy as a "prevent defense." He is taking no chances, giving his standard stump speeches, breaking no new policy ground, and handling Perot with kid gloves.

Much to the relief of Democrats, Perot and Bush have renewed the sniping that characterized their relationship in the spring, when Perot first accused Bush of dirty tricks.

The most recent flurry of charges - that the Bush campaign used computer imaging to create a lewd photo of one of Perot's daughters - was strongly denied by the White House.

The angry back-and-forth between Bush and Perot, with Bush supporters implying that Perot is an unstable person, may have hurt both camps. Perot and his aides apparently realize the charge against Bush is a no-win issue. Perot's press secretary, Sharon Holman, did her best at a recent meeting with reporters to change the subject.

"Our focus from this point on is to remain focused on the issues," she told reporters. "Our goal is to get back to what we are all about."

What sets Perot apart from the other candidates is television - lots and lots of television - that may cost more than $60 million before his campaign is over.

Ms. Holman says the 30-minute programs, in which Perot discusses federal budget problems, his family, and the secrets of success in business, are drawing audiences between 10 million and 12 million viewers each.

A new survey by Times Mirror Center for The People & The Press finds that 3 out of every 5 voters in the US have watched at least one of Perot's 30-minute programs.

Three out of 4 said they learned something from the programs, and about 40 percent said they were more likely to vote for Perot.

Another 57 percent said they were still unlikely to support him, however.

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