The choice Americans will have over their future leadership is coming into focus.
Galvanized by their convention last week in San Diego, Republicans hope to recapture the White House with standard conservative promises to stimulate the economy through lower taxes, crack down on crime and terrorism, and combat the forces they hold responsible for a breakdown of traditional values.
Democrats, now gearing up for their own conclave in Chicago next week, will seek to portray themselves as defenders of the middle class, offering tax relief to offset college tuition, pension reform, and a modest plan to reform health care.
The fledgling Reform Party nominated its founder, Ross Perot, over the weekend, ending doubts about the role the Texas billionaire would play this year. He pitches deficit reduction, term limits, and campaign-finance reform.
Underlying this three-way contest are two primary themes. One is trust. GOP running mates Bob Dole and Jack Kemp argue that the ethical problems swirling over the Clinton White House, as well as Mr. Clinton's broken promise not to raise taxes, make the incumbent unworthy of a second term. The White House, meanwhile, argues that Mr. Dole's $548 billion economic program will balloon the deficit.
Mr. Perot, meanwhile, argues that neither Republicans nor Democrats have met their responsibilities to improve government.
Playing family-values card
The second theme is preservation of the family. Republicans blame liberal government programs for a breakdown in the home: "The state is now more involved than it has ever been in the raising of children, and children are now more neglected, abused, and more mistreated than they have been in our time," Dole said in his acceptance speech Thursday night.
The White House, meanwhile, wraps its economic message in defense of the family. "The president wants to continue working to create more opportunity for all American people, demand more responsibility from all the American people, and strengthen the American community by helping strengthen families," says senior White House adviser George Stephanopoulos. "Those are the watchwords."
Where the race stands, meanwhile, is difficult to say.
Republicans were buoyed by a well-greased meeting in San Diego, and they appear to have cut their polling deficit in half. But voter surveys are typically unstable during the convention season. Dole's lag was especially large and the bounce probably insufficient. As one analyst notes, even Walter Mondale left the '84 Democratic convention 2 points ahead of Ronald Reagan. Dole is still from 2 to 10 points behind.
The electorate, furthermore, remains as fickle as it has been during the past three ballot cycles. Even if the two major parties shore up their bases, that still leaves at least a third of the vote in play - prey for Perot - and neither side is resting on its laurels.
"Perot is becoming a more marginal figure in American politics," says Vin Weber, a senior Dole strategist, "but even a marginal figure can have an impact, because elections are decided on the margins."
The Republicans "have got a better message now than they had before: tax cuts," says Stuart Rothenberg, a Washington-based political analyst. "They have better positioning now than they had before - more to the center. But Clinton's performance over the past year generally met with approval, the economy is good, and he's a far better campaigner."
Mr. Rothenberg says about 15 states are in play on the electoral college map, including the key Midwest. He estimates Dole needs to win 70 percent of them to win.
To set the stage for the Democratic convention, Clinton this week will underscore his commitment to the middle class by signing one bill increasing the minimum wage and another making health insurance portable from one job to the next.
Once in Chicago, party leaders hope to project an image of the president as above the fray of campaign politics. They will emphasize highlights from Clinton's record as they see it: a 50 percent reduction in the deficit; the lowest misery index - a combined measure of joblessness and inflation - in 30 years; and passage of a crime bill, welfare reform, and the family leave act.
Democrats also will contrast the president's economic proposals with Dole's. Administration officials, arguing that the GOP's promise to cut taxes by 15 percent across the board and halve the capital-gains rate will recklessly increase the deficit. Clinton offers a more modest tax credit aimed at offsetting the burden of college tuition.
Health care, Round 2
The president will also call again for health-care reform, although this time the effort will be more modest than his failed 1993 attempt. Meaningful reform, the administration believes, is more beneficial to the middle class than, say, Dole's proposed $500-per-child tax credit.
"We still believe the problem hasn't gone away, and many people have lost their health insurance," Mr. Stephanopoulos says. "We have no specifics [for a health-care reform package], but the president said it must be incremental and bipartisan."