WHEN President Clinton took the stage this week in Texas to talk about racial harmony, he seemed to be in his element: occupying the limelight and looking presidential, earning his own small spot on the evening news along with the Million Man March.
Oh yes, and he was also running for reelection. Technically, the speech at the University of Texas at Austin was not a campaign event. One-thousand-dollar-a-plate meals were not served. But the trip to Texas, California, and Connecticut early this week was the latest of several quick but lucrative fund-raising tours Clinton has taken since his as-yet-unannounced reelection campaign began this summer.
Barring an unforeseen turn of events, between now and Nov. 5, 1996, Mr. Clinton will be both president and candidate for president. It is a fact of life that will be increasingly important as he goes head to head against Republicans in Congress on such fundamental issues as a balanced budget, welfare, and health care for the poor and elderly.
In a way, of course, first-term presidents are running for reelection the minute they take the oath of office. But Clinton has put his own mark on the process by running unusually early campaign ads on television and by raising his money early. By Thanksgiving, he expects to have raised $43 million toward reelection. By contrast, President Bush didn't start serious fund-raising until his final year in office.
"The instructions from the White House were, 'Raise money quickly, spend it slowly,'" says Ann Lewis, spokeswoman for the Clinton-Gore campaign.
The question is, will such a strategy make sense for Clinton? Is his run for the Oval Office helped or hindered by the fact that he occupies it?
"The best way to run for president is by being a great president," says Democratic consultant Mark Melman.
By sewing up the Democratic money now, he adds, Clinton can scare off any potential competitors inside the party and spend 1996 focusing on governing and on wooing votes, not cash.
Clinton bears a historical weight on his shoulders. The last Democratic president to serve two complete terms was Franklin Delano Roosevelt (who, of course, served more than three terms, until his death in office in 1945). Presidents Johnson and Truman won reelection after taking over for presidents who died, but neither put in two full terms.
Clinton must also overcome his own history. He won the 1992 three-man race with only 43 percent of the vote, and if 1996 remains a two-party contest, he'll have to do better than that.
Running as an incumbent comes with inherent advantages and disadvantages. The obvious advantage is that he has the ultimate high-profile platform and a deluxe travel setup for campaign swings that is partially funded by taxpayers. He also can argue for experience on the job.
DISADVANTAGES include persistent media criticism, anti-Washington feeling, and the likelihood of unkept promises from his first campaign, notes political scientist Stephen Wayne in his new book, "The Road to the White House 1996."
"At this point, I think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages for Clinton," says Mr. Wayne, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. "I don't think he's increased the level of grievances against him.... Incumbency allows him to offset the baggage he still has on the character issue."
Many imponderables remain for Clinton: perceptions about the economy, whether the country is embroiled in any international arenas (such as Bosnia), whether anything emerges on Whitewater that could sink him.
But for Clinton, Democratic and Republican analysts agree, it makes sense to put on his campaign hat early. He is a talented campaigner, Republicans concede, able to connect with voters in a way that none in the Republican field can. Frank Luntz, a pollster for Texas Sen. Phil Gramm's campaign, said at a recent Monitor breakfast that voters believe Clinton's theme of "common ground" is the right message, but Clinton is the wrong messenger. But when asked if any Republican candidate could carry off that theme, he said no.
In dealings with Congress, Clinton is well positioned to practice a technique that adviser Dick Morris calls "triangulation": positioning himself in the center between the Republican conservatives and liberal Democrats. All the threats of veto and debt default during this high-tension budget season will be but a distant memory by November 1996 if, ultimately, the president and Congress reach agreement.