Final Moves for a Race At Two-Minute Warning

As they sprint through the final weekend of Campaign '96, President Clinton and Republican challenger Bob Dole face very different political tasks.

For the president - wading through the electorate on the last pure campaign trip of his political career - the watchword is "defense." His job is to protect his lead, deflect questions about possible Democratic campaign-finance abuses, and support races lower down the ticket.

Mr. Dole, on the other hand, has to play offense - and a hurry-up, two-minute offense at that. He surely knows that his chances of victory are slim at best, if polls are accurate. That probably makes this weekend one last trip down a road he has traveled almost nonstop - either for himself or others - for 25 years.

"Candidates try to show they are optimistic" in the final days, says Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University here. "They try to make people feel warm and fuzzy about them. Usually by now, everybody knows what is going to happen. Candidates relax."

Though US presidential politics has seen some last-minute comebacks, it's generally difficult to shift race dynamics in the final days. Candidates know this. Even so, they race to the very end, sometimes gliding, sometimes flailing through round-the-clock schedules. Speeches become barometers of mood.

Herbert Hoover lashed out in the closing days of the 1932 vote, warning that if Franklin Roosevelt were elected, "green grass" would grow all over America, a metaphor for the radicalism that was spreading through Europe. Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee in 1988, posed in front of as many crowds as possible to create the illusion of momentum. George Bush, on the eve of his defeat, called his opponent, who didn't check into a hotel once in the final three days, "bozo."

In the Dole campaign, a feeling of relief has developed in recent days. Although he offers no concessions to the public and has become virtually inaccessible to reporters riding just a few rows down the aisle in his airplane, the candidate has spent more time visiting friendly turf than broadening his coalition.

He's shoring up his hard base across the South, Southwest, and Midwest. If he loses, maybe he won't be the first Republican to lose a majority of Southern states in 20 years. Maybe he'll carry Arizona, a state whose population growth in recent years has diluted its strong conservative leaning.

Words and actions at the top of each party's ticket also reflect needs in lesser races. Both parties are vying for control of Congress, and several key gubernatorial elections - such as Indiana - are competitive. (Governors' races, Page 3.)

Clinton has spent more time in recent days helping his party win congressional seats and governor's mansions. It's an indirect appeal. The president appears onstage with other Democrats, speaks well of them, but doesn't ask voters to support them. It's also a reverse of two years ago. In 1994, after Republicans won Congress, Democrats on the Hill fled the president. Now they hope to ride his coattails.

Republicans, meanwhile, have adopted a message that all but concedes Dole will lose: Don't give Clinton a blank check. In these last few days before the vote, GOP candidates - some who are notably absent from Dole rallies in their states or districts - are appealing to voters to retain a GOP majority on Capitol Hill to keep Clinton from returning to liberal programs in a second term.

Dole speeches may reinforce his party's new theme. This week he jumped on new government figures that show economic growth has slowed from 4.7 percent in the second quarter to 2.2 percent in the third - proof, he says, that the voters are squeezed by "the stagnant wages and high taxes of this administration." The new data may not help him sell his economic plan at this late date, but might help some congressional Republicans keep their seats.

As they rush through their weekend schedules, Clinton and Dole will most likely accentuate the positive. Dole is unlikely to join Clinton on the high road, but he has already toned down his attacks somewhat against the president's ethics.

They will try, too, to appear before as many television cameras in front of the biggest crowds they can attract. Dole will claim the crowds belie the polls. A veteran of the game, he probably knows better.

"Dukakis courted the support of crowds," says Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University in Washington. "That illusion of momentum is a notoriously bad barometer."

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