IN the weeks before the election, a Clinton campaign official who is an old friend of the candidate said that if Bill Clinton won, he would "do everything he can to keep this remarkable conversation going."
The conversation he referred to was the direct rapport with voters Mr. Clinton sought on bus rides, call-in shows, and in long, lingering sessions working crowds along rope lines. "Politics is catching up with culture," said the official, Saul Benjamin. "People want to talk back."
For better or for worse, the campaign that ended last night moved electioneering to a new state of the art.
Both Clinton and Ross Perot sought to remake the connection between people and politics in this campaign. An important part of their strategies was to get the conventional press out of the way, to cut out the middleman in delivering their messages.
Like the most competitive businesses these days, they got closer to the customer.
The tenor of the times was that voters were alienated from politics and government at record levels. Indifference to the point of hostility was a predominant feeling. Government seemed less relevant, less connected to public concerns year by year.
The ethos of the Clinton campaign was that it was hitting an emotional chord with the public that had not been heard for years. Clinton listened. He had empathy. He had known hard times, too. He wanted to connect emotionally.
He tried to stop at every outstretched hand on the campaign trail, down to the last state trooper guarding his plane on the tarmac. Clinton stopped and looked each person in the eye, and he talked low and earnestly.
In his half-hour commercial on network television Nov. 2, he told of seeing a big Clinton-Gore banner in a field outside the bus window. "I realized then that this campaign is carrying the heart of America, carrying the hopes of America," he said. In the same film, he said he might not have all the answers or say what people wanted to hear, "but I will wake up thinking about you."
Perot played the part of the angry prophet from Main Street, the no-nonsense outsider, a strident cross between Horatio Alger and Will Rogers.
Perot would brook no distraction from the issues as he saw them. His end-run of the conventional press was nearly absolute.
The angry prophet's agenda, consisting mainly of the federal deficit, was not shaped by opinion surveys. But by the time he had been in the race awhile it was appearing there.
If voters wanted to know who was responsible for the "Washington mess," he told them, they could go look in the mirror.
Perot was not interested in the politics of "victimology." The voters were the owners of this country, and they should start taking charge again.
He aroused more interest and attention than any other candidate in the race, hands down. His entry began on Larry King Live and did not appear to be entirely premeditated.
The spontaneous outburst of volunteer efforts to put him on the ballots, the buttons and bumper stickers, his outright lead in the early summer polls - dwarfed the enthusiasm any other candidate could claim.
The enthusiasm did not necessarily translate into support. But even in the last week before the election, when his actual support was registering at 15 to 20 percent in the polls, a Times Mirror survey found that voters were paying far more attention to Perot than either of his rivals.
The Bush campaign worked in the conventional mode. Bush has always made a sharp distinction between his governing and his politicking.
At one he is most alive and comfortable: cordially jawboning his peers, handling crises, carrying out the nation's business with the help of trusted advisers. For the other, the politics, Bush has held a little-disguised contempt.
Few politicians have campaigned in a way so at odds with their style of governing. The pragmatic dealmaker returns to his no-new-taxes campaign pledge by apologizing for ever having broken it. The president who is decent and friendly to his political enemies, the patient diplomat, becomes the angry candidate who calls his opponents "Bozos" and spreads innuendos about trips to Moscow.
It all seemed so unlike him. He told an audience in Wisconsin Saturday he would be "elated" when the campaign was over.
The Bush campaign style, says Murray Edelman, an expert in political rhetoric who recently retired from the University of Wisconsin, shows a contempt for his audience.
"He uses the kind of tactics that adolescents or children use when they're angry. That implies that voters are children or adolescents," he says.
The voter empowerment rhetoric of Perot showed signs of manipulation. The volunteer effort that put him on the ballot in 50 states was genuine; but was he listening to them?
When he came back into the race, he made much of the wishes of his volunteers. But did they ask him to break their hearts by dropping out in the first place?
"One of the things that's strange is that Perot presents the illusion of populism, but all from a distance," says Bruce Miroff, a political scientist at the State University of New York at Albany. Perot never actually engaged people or submitted to questions from the press the way the other candidates had.
Clinton, drawling fast and softly with his lip-biting sincerity, had his some credibility problems. Perot set a standard for straight-sounding, like-it-or-not talk that made Bush and Clinton both sound squishy by comparison.
One young man in a jean jacket and layered brown hair, a worker in a Sussex, Wis., plastics plant, noted, "Clinton doesn't really go right to the heart on anything."