WASHINGTON -- Before the cherry blossoms have dropped, George Bush and Bill Clinton are laying the groundwork for a tough fall campaign geared to a hostile electorate's increasingly shrill demand for change.
Mr. Bush is now only days away from the formality of clinching renomination. And Mr. Clinton looks increasingly like the Democratic nominee, after primary victories in New York and three other states last week.
In a year when a voters have clearly had it with politics as usual, both men agree on the main issue of their contest: change. The challenge for each, over the long months between now and November, will be to persuade voters that he represents the right sort of change.
"It's going to be a tough race, in a weird year, in terms of voters with this anti-establishment sentiment," said Charles Black, a senior adviser to the Bush campaign. "I think it will be very late in the game before we really get confident."
For Mr. Bush, a 30-year veteran of Washington's inside game, the message of change won't be an easy one to convey. His major "reform" proposal is that voters should take Congress out of Democratic hands.
His re-election message will promote minor, midcourse corrections in the direction of government, under an overarching theme of "experience, reliability and character." His political strategy will be to exploit the too-slick image of Mr. Clinton planted by a primary season in which the Democrat has been pummeled with one scandalous charge after another.
"Character is the dominant issue on the voters' minds," said BTC Robert Teeter, the president's pollster and manager of the Bush-Quayle campaign. "They don't take a checklist of 12 issues and vote for the person who they agree with on six or more. They make a generalized decision about which of two people they want to sit in the Oval Office and make value judgments for them."
But Mr. Clinton, who earned grudging Republican respect by having survived such rough primary treatment, has no intention of letting the Bush campaign define him in negative terms as they did to Michael S. Dukakis four years ago.
"Don't expect to see Mike Dukakis' prissiness," vows Paul Begala, a Clinton strategist. "This is for real."
Presidential re-elections are typically referendums on the incumbent's first term in office, and Mr. Clinton plans a full-bore assault on the Bush record, particularly on economic issues.
To Americans who are jobless or worried about their financial future, Mr. Clinton will point to the perceived excesses of the 1980s, the Reagan-Bush era.
The nightmare scenario for the Bush camp is that voters are so fed up they'd rather take a chance on Mr. Clinton than face four more years of the same. The Democrats worry that Mr. Bush will do such a good job of defacing his opponent that voters will be afraid to switch.
"Our great fear is that it will be the ugliest, bloodiest scene imaginable," said Paul Tully, political director of the Democratic National Committee.
As recently as January, Bush aides figured that, by fall, Americans would be feeling much better about where the country was headed, making the president's re-election a breeze.
Despite some positive economic signs that arrived with the crocuses, Bush advisers say it is now clear that nothing will happen by fall to convince voters that happy days are here again.
The unemployment rate, at 7.3 percent in March, prompted Mr. Bush to seek a temporary truce with Congress last week and endorse an extension of jobless benefits through the end of the year.
"We're just trying to do everything we can to win by 51 percent without an improvement in the economy," Mr. Black said.
The scramble to find a positive message for Mr. Bush has thrown his staff into an uproar. Instead of one message, the White House has offered a dozen, adding to the charge that the president is not deeply committed to anything.
Over the past two weeks alone, the president has staged events to talk about welfare reform, education reform, congressional reform, regulatory reform, aid to the former Soviet republics and new limits on lawsuits called tort reform.
"There's no focus," said a Bush adviser outside the White House. "I think it's all a bunch of bunk. Who the heck knows anything about tort reform?"
When pressed by reporters Friday to choose one top domestic (( priority for the next four years, the president picked fulfilling the goals of the America 2000 program -- a plan for upgrading American education that he and Mr. Clinton had worked on together.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Vice President Quayle are both said to be unhappy about the way things are going under the direction of Mr. Teeter and the new White House chief of staff, Samuel K. Skinner.
Mr. Baker, who has run Mr. Bush's prior presidential campaigns, will not give up his new diplomatic career, friends say. But the president is expected to call in someone new to infuse his re-election bid with more passion, possibly his 1988 media adviser, Roger Ailes.