Those Volatile Voters

At this point in the fall political campaign, things have reached the point where, if you believe the partisans, the public has a choice between the "extremist" Republicans and the "radical" Democrats.

Both sides, of course, are trying to claim the great center of the American electorate, and each points to the other side's flubs over the past four years. President Clinton and the Democrats recall last year's "Republican" shutdown of the government (apparently presidential vetoes had nothing to do with it) and GOP mishandling of environmental issues. Republican hopeful Dole asks the public to forget the last two years of the Clinton record and focus instead on the first two - the years of "gays in the military" and proposals to create a huge government health-care bureaucracy.

The president appears to lead the former Kansas senator by about 12-points in nationwide polls of likely voters. In the electoral college, which is what it's all about, ABC News state-by-state polling estimates that Clinton leads Dole 350 to 107 electoral votes, while PoliticsNow's David Winston pegs it at 421 to 111 in favor of Clinton (it takes 270 to win).

But there is a case for caution in evaluating the poll numbers. While it currently looks bad for Dole, the political professionals we have spoken with - Democrat and Republican - agree that the electorate right now is as volatile as they have ever seen it.

Several forces seem to be at work: First, voters want reform. They voted for change in 1992, when they voted out George Bush; and in 1994, when they ended Democratic control of Congress. Second, they are not very enthusiastic about any candidate: not Clinton, Dole, or Ross Perot, whose single-digit poll rankings are a pale shadow of his 1992 showing. Third, they really don't seem to be paying much attention to the race. This leads more than one observer to conclude that neither the presidential contest nor the congressional races will be decided until the last two weeks before the election, barring a major gaffe or intervening event.

Elections where an incumbent is running are always about the incumbent. So far, Dole hasn't convinced voters - especially independents - to fire Clinton. His tax-cut proposal hasn't done the job, because people either haven't heard of it or don't think it will work. Last week's antidrug emphasis, including hard-hitting TV ads, tried to play to a Dole strength and a perceived Clinton weakness. Republicans this week, from Dole on down, are pushing the line that a second Clinton term will see the president revert to his "natural" liberalism. But watch for a return to the tax-cut theme soon - Republicans are still convinced it will be a winner if they can just get the word out.

Clinton, meanwhile, continues the luxury of campaigning in additional states that should be solidly in the Republican column - multiplying Dole's problems - and campaigning for Democratic congressional candidates. The White House displays adeptness at reacting quickly to Dole's moves, and Clinton's preemption of GOP issues continues apace. He deftly wields the power of the incumbency, this week addressing middle-class economic concerns with a new inflation-indexed Treasury bond. Administration officials seem to be everywhere: appearing on TV, speaking on radio talk shows, and sending a torrent of op-ed articles touting Clinton achievements to newspaper editorial pages.

Perot may have new life as he rides the issue of his exclusion from the campaign debates. The bipartisan commission that sponsors them made a literally correct decision: Perot has no "realistic chance" of being elected in 1996, unlike four years ago. But it was politically incorrect: It violates the American people's sense of fairness and increases dissatisfaction with the political system.

Clinton, meanwhile, can make hay by quietly reiterating his support of Perot's participation, thus shunting blame onto Dole, who opposed Perot's presence but who needs to pick up some Perot supporters to win. If Perot makes no headway soon, however, his campaign is virtually over.

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