The Republican Party opens its quadrennial convention today in sun-spangled San Diego with standard-bearer Bob Dole badly in need of the boost a rousing political camp meeting can give.
Mr. Dole's tax-cutting economic plan and choice of Jack Kemp for his running mate have already won him a week of intense media attention. Advisers hope that four days of issue-oriented meetings and a moving acceptance speech could now gain their man some momentum and start shrinking President Clinton's lead in the polls.
True, national surveys taken in recent months have shown Mr. Clinton 12 to 20 points ahead. Historically speaking, it's difficult to oust a White House incumbent.
But here's the GOP theory: the Dole campaign really hasn't started yet. The former senator spent all his pre-nomination funds in bruising primary battles, and has been sitting on the sidelines, patiently, ever since.
"Since April, for all practical purposes, he has had no campaign in so far as public marketing," said Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour at a Monitor breakfast on Saturday.
Meanwhile, the Clinton team has spent $40 million on ads attacking Republicans, Mr. Barbour said. "It might be better to ask, 'Why isn't Dole farther behind?' "
Even some Republicans admit Barbour may be describing an optimistic scenario. The Dole campaign has seemed fog-bound for months. It's only in recent weeks that the candidate himself has seemed to focus his stumping energy and project a coherent message on the road.
And all the hoopla here in San Diego - the bunting, the banners, the inflatable elephants climbing sides of hotels - can't hide the fact that for Dole the numbers are generally still bad. A nationwide Chicago Tribune poll taken on the eve of the convention found the still-presumptive GOP candidate 21 points behind the incumbent, for instance. A Los Angeles Times poll taken last week came up with similar results.
A Washington Post poll released before the weekend contained relatively good news for the Dole camp: only a 10-point Clinton lead. And a Pew Research Center survey released earlier this month showed 53 percent for Clinton to 42 percent for Dole.
Clinton commanding key GOP issues
But Dole's real problem may lie behind the overall numbers. The Pew survey found that respondents rated the president even with his challenger on foreign-policy competence and budget-cutting prowess - issues where Republicans traditionally win points. Asked who would most improve economic conditions, Pew respondents picked Clinton, 45 to 38 percent.
"The Republicans' strongest issue this century has usually been that they can handle the economy better," says Tom Cronin, a presidential scholar and president of Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. "Dole sure does need a bump coming out of this convention."
If history is any guide, he'll get one - at least for a while. Since 1960, the candidates of challenging parties, which traditionally hold their conventions first, have gained an average poll "bounce" of 6 points by the time the meetings are over, according to figures compiled by the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
Candidate Clinton received the biggest challenger bounce of the postwar era, gaining 16 points on George Bush at the close of the Democratic convention in 1992. Twenty years earlier, George McGovern gained the least, with his post-meeting bounce totaling exactly zero.
The bounce doesn't always last, of course. The incumbent party candidate gets his own boost after his convention - though typically it's slightly lower than the challenger's figure. And there's still months of campaign time left for issues to take hold and gaffes to be made before the election in November.
Issues - and specifically economic issues - are one thing Dole advisers say they're still convinced could swing their way. Most recent polls, they point out, don't take into account Dole's broad plan to cut taxes, including a proposed 15 percent reduction in personal income-tax rates.
With new funds, Dole to deliver message
With the limits on prenomination spending behind them, Dole operatives will now be able to take their $74 million in federally supplied general-election campaign funds and hammer home their message of lower taxes and less government, said RNC chief Barbour. At the very least, those are traditional GOP stands that could excite the party faithful, he said. To this point, one of Dole's bigger electoral problems has been shallow support among the Republican rank and file.
But Dole will have to appeal to centrist independents in crucial swing states such as Michigan if he's to have a realistic chance of winning. In essence, he'll have to persuade at least a plurality of American voters to fire the incumbent - something that's not easy to do. In the wake of Clinton's own defeat of President Bush it's easy to forget that in this century eight of the 12 White House incumbents who stood for reelection won. In general, Americans don't like to dump a chief executive after one term - a historical fact that may count at least as much as Dole's tax-cut plan, or the bitter GOP split over abortion.