IN the very last days of his last campaign, George Bush has come into his voice, found his focus.
No longer a sad figure of a losing president, he is in a horse race again. In the course of the past week, victory has become imaginable, if still difficult.
In the front-line battleground states of the upper Midwest, he is aggressive to the point of contempt toward the Clinton-Gore ticket, or "Governor Taxes and Ozone Man," in his new phrase. But he speaks now with a sporting lightness that avoids smacking of bitterness or whining.
On Saturday, watching the president across a tight, flood-lit crowd in the prematurely dark Northern evening, Wayne Bushman laughs heartily at President Bush's taunts and shouts, "Give it to 'em!"
"He did what he had to do," said the broad-backed Mr. Bushman after Bush finished.
Bush might have started sooner, noted Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) earlier in the day, traveling with the president by train through rural Wisconsin.
Nearly every major step in the Bush campaign this fall has come late, including the closing of the race in the polls.
But even Clinton campaign strategists acknowledge that the Bush effort has snapped into a clearer focus in the last two weeks. The president himself is a sharper campaigner and the campaign around him is better coordinated, observes Clinton media adviser Mandy Grunwald.
Even new evidence that emerged Friday that Bush knew of the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran did not throw him off his stride. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater admitted that the campaign lost a day of news coverage to the charges, but on Saturday Bush was back on the offensive.
The evidence comes from former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger's notes from a 1986 meeting that say Bush supported the hostage deal. Bush denies this. Bush gave the affair a partisan slant, characterizing the Iran-contra investigation as a "six-year, Democrat-run political fiasco that has cost taxpayers $40 million."
National security adviser Brent Scowcroft called the charges political: adding no new information, but brought out three days before the election "as if it were entirely new stuff."
On the economy, Bush finally has some good news, and he is playing it to the hilt. Last week's annualized estimate of third-quarter growth at 2.7 percent will almost certainly be revised downward in coming weeks as more information comes in. But the number gives Bush some license to say: "The economy, thank God, is moving forward."
It also allows him to cast the Democrats in the role of pessimists, economic ghouls, hoping for bad news to help their reelection prospects. "Tears trickled down their face" when they heard the new growth estimate, Bush said on Saturday.
Oddly, the candidates nearly crossed paths in Wisconsin that day. Bill Clinton and Bush were both in a state where residents could be heard wondering why they were so politically significant this year.
Although it has only 11 electoral votes out of 270 needed to win, Wisconsin is one of the last states to fit into the winning puzzles of each campaign. It is one of a handful of battleground states identified at the beginning of the general-election campaign. Governor Thompson insists that neither candidate can win without Wisconsin, and their schedules over the final weekend indicated that they agree.
The Bush campaign went into its final weekend behind the Clinton ticket, but it claimed the momentum. As late as Friday, Democrats were arguing that Bush was closing the gap with Governor Clinton in national polls only because Clinton had slipped in Bush's strongest states. Clinton pollsters saw no movement of opinion in the battleground states.
But new evidence continued to come in over the weekend. A Wisconsin poll released yesterday by the Milwaukee Journal showed a race that had closed to a three-point lead for Clinton over Bush, well within the margin of error. In Ohio, another battleground state, two new polls showed Clinton's lead at one-and-a-half and six percentage points.
On his whistle-stop tour through Wisconsin Saturday, Bush told crowds that they lifted his morale. Thompson said Bush was tired but energized by the crowds. He seemed relaxed and alive to his own words. He hit the stresses and cadences naturally, something he often has trouble with. He seldom stumbled on words and syntax.
His talk was rough, however. He impugned Clinton's character in insults, innuendo, and double-entendre. In criticizing Clinton's "yes, but" support of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Bush got a lot of laughs for saying: "You cannot have a lot of `buts' in that Oval Office." He apologized for calling Clinton and Sen. Al Gore "bozos" on Friday, then did it again. More cutting, in Chippewa Falls he called them "a couple of yuppies dressed as moderates."