IT'S white-knuckle time for the Clinton campaign.
On election eve, Gov. Bill Clinton and his team, many of them frazzled and baggy-eyed after months of nonstop electioneering, watch anxiously as state polls show a tightening race. In the final frenetic 72 hours, Governor Clinton has chased from Georgia to Iowa to Wisconsin to Ohio to New Jersey to Pennsylvania hunting for those last few votes.
The campaign ends tonight with a television avalanche like nothing ever seen in American politics.
Clinton has blocked out 30 minutes on ABC-TV at 8:30 p.m. (EST). George Bush will pepper the airwaves with two-minute commercials, while Ross Perot has purchased a total of two hours on all three major networks (Perot's election-eve blitz, Page 7).
Much is at stake tomorrow in an election that has generated unusual excitement, especially among younger voters.
Yet the level of political dialogue troubles some analysts. All sides hurl charges of lying and try to tear down one another's reputations.
"It's ugly, ugly, ugly, right up to the end," laments Del Ali, vice president of Political Media Research.
A Clinton victory would end a 12-year Democratic drought in the White House. If Democrats also hold onto the Congress, as expected, it would put the same party in charge of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue - and clearly fix blame if things go wrong. While Clinton has led the race since July, his aides know that in this unpredictable year, with a nation chock-full of angry voters, they could still lose. Slippage expected
But they insist the shrinkage of Clinton's margin over President Bush in the most recent public opinion polls should have been expected.
Mandy Grunwald, a Clinton media strategist, has worked around the clock, often finishing her workday at 5 a.m., to prepare the final television commercials for the campaign. She briefly interrupted her sleepless schedule here to tell reporters at a Monitor breakfast that the governor always warns voters they will need "courage" to change.
"The closer you get to election day, the more people focus on the seriousness of their decision," Ms. Grunwald explains. "The history of any challenger ... is that people, as they get closer to election day, become more conservative about a question of change, even in years like this when people clearly want change."
Even though many pundits long ago declared that Clinton would win this election easily, the governor still insists he's the underdog, as any challenger would be against a sitting president.
Most of the polls say the race is becoming breathtakingly close. Once, Clinton led in virtually every state. Now, in battlegrounds like Ohio, New Jersey, Florida, and Texas, Bush has made it close, or appears to have gone out front.
The CNN/USA Today/Gallup tracking poll, which interviews 1,000 people a day, shows the dramatic shift that has taken place, especially in the Republican-oriented South, where Clinton once was ahead.
Across the South, Bush now leads with 42 percent to Clinton's 39 percent, according to a sampling taken Oct. 28-29. Mr. Perot draws 14 percent.
Even more impressive is Bush's comeback among Southern whites. With that group, the president now leads by a resounding 49 percent to 31 percent.
It is the black vote, with Clinton leading Bush 82 percent to 10 percent, that makes the governor competitive in the South and in some of the key industrial states in the North. A large turnout of black voters tomorrow will be critical for Clinton.
As the final hours click by, Charles Black, a senior Bush strategist, scoffs at Clinton's travel schedule during the past week. Too often, Clinton went into states that he didn't need to win, while the president focused on "must win" states like Ohio and Michigan.
Mr. Black particularly derides Clinton's recent swing through Republican-oriented states like Florida, Texas, and Mississippi as a "victory lap," a waste of time that the governor may regret by tomorrow night.
Experts say two factors depressed support for the governor in recent days. One was the relentless nature of Bush's attacks, denouncing Clinton for participating in protests against the Vietnam War while a college student in England, and condemning him as a tax-and-spend liberal. Message muddied
The other factor was that Clinton's message got momentarily overshadowed by Perot's clear-cut call for economic nationalism. Tom Cronin, a political scientist at Colorado College, says Perot essentially took the economic battle cry away from Clinton.
It was Perot who made the deficit an issue. It was Perot who raised concerns about "spending too much, borrowing too much, investing too little, and foisting off the debt on our grandchildren," Mr. Cronin says. "On issues, Perot is the winner."
Caught between these two forces, Clinton's bandwagon slowed. But will he be overtaken?