It's been two weeks now since the fall stretch run of the presidential campaign began. If you clear away the bunting, parse the stump speeches, and plot candidate stops, the opening strategies are finally becoming sharply defined.
*Clinton: Let's make Dole play defense. Over the last seven days, Air Force One has spent lots of time in states that lean Republican. Thus the president swept through the Mountain West earlier this week, stopping off in Colorado and Arizona. He's spent so much of September in Florida - a must-win state for Bob Dole - that at least one local commentator wondered if Mr. Clinton was running for governor.
This tactic is meant to force the GOP challenger to devote precious time and money to shoring up his base, instead of improving his position in key swing states such as Michigan. Indeed, Mr. Dole stopped off in Florida this week - as well as Georgia, Louisiana, and several other states where he can't spend much time if he's going to win.
*Dole: Focus and execute. Dole, on the other hand, shaped his campaign stops to hammer home his basic stump theme: "My tax-cut economic plan will make your life better." In Florida and elsewhere he appeared at small, sympathetic backyard gatherings where he could control his message while interacting with local voters, not dark-suited local pols.
Doggedness defines Dole's approach. He owes all he's accomplished in life to a single-minded overcoming of obstacles, and thus he appears to view his daunting poll deficits with a kind of stoic stubbornness.
In a brief, revealing stop in Washington to rally restive congressional Republicans, Dole said, "The polls go up and down, and people get discouraged. But the candidate can never get discouraged. The candidate has to be optimistic."
By the numbers
It's true that this week's polls showed little movement Dole's way.
An ABC survey shows the extent of Dole's electoral college problem: If the election were now, not in November, Clinton would likely win 28 states with a total of 338 electoral votes (270 are needed for victory). Dole would win 16 states, and 135 electoral votes. Six states were considered too close to call.
Furthermore, the ABC poll - as well as other surveys - rated Clinton strongly ahead in Illinois. That's a surprise, and an unpleasant one for Dole strategists.
With its 22 electoral votes, Illinois is one of the most crucial battleground states in the nation and a place where GOP candidates must be competitive to win nationally. Expect Dole to show up in Chicago soon.
But poll news for the ex-Senate majority leader was not unrelievedly bad. He won the week's only real political beauty contest: a straw poll of Miss America contestants. Nineteen of the young women gathered in Atlantic City for Saturday's pageant said they backed Dole for president. Nine said they preferred Clinton, with 19 undecided.
"That's the kind of focus group we love," said Dole spokesman Nelson Warfield.
Nor did Clinton cruise through the week without hitting a pothole. He was addressing the Southern Governors' Association in Missouri on Tuesday when KMBC-TV reporter Kris Ketz began a live report from the hall, talking loudly enough to draw a presidential rebuke.
"Does that guy want to give a speech back there?" said Clinton, after the interruption. "We can't both talk at the same time."
The most garbled appearance of the week, however, clearly belonged to GOP vice-presidential candidate Jack Kemp. Speaking to Congress, the nine-term House member took off his hat to lawmakers, then seemed to offer to also remove his feet and clothing.
"As a man of the House, I feel as if I should remove the feet and the shoes, and lay my garments on the altar, because to me the Congress of the United States is a shrine to the greatest democracy in the history of the world," he said.
Mr. Kemp later apologized to his audience for talking too long. "I mean, I can go five minutes without using a verb," he said.
As Clinton stumped the country, he continued his now-familiar practice of emphasizing small actions government has taken during his term that are meant to help average families. In Kansas City, he defended the Family and Medical Leave Act, for instance.
Dole has criticized this law - which allows, among other things, parents to take unpaid leave to care for children - as heavy-handed government intervention in the free marketplace.
Dole continued to focus on economics, defending his tax-cut plan against Democratic charges that it will lead to Draconian reductions in government spending and damage such popular programs as Medicare.
"That's all they have is fear, fear, fear," said Dole in Louisiana. "All we have to do is save five or six cents on the dollar on [non-Medicare] federal spending."