The debates are over. Now comes the 270-meter dash.
With three weeks until election day and no more opportunities to address a national audience, Republican challenger Bob Dole is scrambling to find enough electoral votes to win the White House. He has to think big.
Several estimates suggest that no matter where Mr. Dole looks on the map, the picture is bleak. He has roughly eight to 12 states - about 65 to 110 electoral college votes. To reach the needed 270, he'll have to focus on a handful of big states that advisers believe, rightly or wrongly, are still within his reach.
California has received the most attention, a state the Dole camp is now bravely promising to contest despite President Clinton's commanding lead. But the roughly $1 million a week it would take to stump there would siphon precious resources away from Dole's efforts in other crucial battleground states, such as Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Florida, and Pennsylvania.
"California seems like an awfully long shot," says Stuart Rothenberg, who publishes a political report in Washington. "Dole has a limited number of dollars and he's changing strategy three weeks out when he should have 20 states already in his hip pocket. He's pulling out of the Northeast. The entire South becomes critical, and it is not a gimme this year."
The electoral map shows that Democrats have the advantage this year, and all the tough battles are being waged on Republican turf. According to surveys, Dole's two biggest states are Texas and North Carolina, which give him a total of 46 votes. The rest of his solid support is in small states in the plains and the mountain regions - the Dakotas, Idaho, and Wyoming, for example.
South is competitive again
Mr. Clinton's advantages across the country are better than any Democrat has enjoyed in a generation. Consider the South. Florida and Georgia, two states Dole should easily and must win, are tossups. So are Virginia, Alabama, and Louisiana.
Two years ago, after winning control of Congress, Republicans were talking about a permanent realignment in the South. Now, "most of the Southern states are competitive," says Earl Black, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston. "The Democrats could win a majority [of Southern states], which they haven't done since 1976. That's impressive."
To the north, meanwhile, Clinton appears to have a lock on New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, including heavyweights New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. He also is running strong in some Midwestern states, including Ohio and Michigan.
The picture across the country underscores the risk Dole would be taking by mounting an aggressive California campaign in the final three weeks. Such a strategy, analysts argue, probably signals that Dole is giving up on New Jersey, a state with 15 votes and whose governor, Christine Whitman, has implemented an economic plan similar to Dole's own. A California strategy also means that Dole will probably concede Illinois, another big GOP-led state that has 22 votes.
Among the big states, that leaves Michigan and Ohio, where Clinton holds the edge, and Georgia and Florida, which are too close to call. No Republican has won the Oval Office without Ohio.
As dire as this seems, Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University in Washington, argues a California-anchored strategy has logic. "Considering the electoral map, it makes as much sense as anything else," he says. "Even so, Dole won't be elected president without the three industrial states and the Deep South."
Why is the picture so bleak for Dole? Some critics blame the candidate. In recent months, he has changed his central message from tax cuts to drug abuse to Clinton's ethics. At the same time, analysts argue, broad voter apathy reflects a failure on Dole's part to make a compelling case for why this election has consequences.
Is GOP bloc fragmenting?
But Dole also is treading against a historical tide, says Maryland-based political analyst Kevin Phillips. The voter coalition that gave Republicans a lock on the White House 20 of the past 28 years, he notes, is fragmenting.
"It started to fold in 1988, even though [George] Bush beat [Michael] Dukakis," he says. "Reagan Democrats and moderate Republican women are leaving the party." The consequences are important for the Frost Belt, the Pacific Northwest, and perhaps even the South.
To be sure, Clinton's centrist campaign and the strong economy have helped him in his home region. Dole's lack of appeal among women is also a factor.
"I have a hunch the reason Republicans aren't doing better in the South this year is white women," says Black. "Republicans always position themselves so that they have to win big white majorities to offset" the black and Hispanic votes going to Democrats. "Now, white women are divided, and Republicans are having to depend on white men."