NEW YORK — New York. Three months from now, Bill Clinton, who has a negative rating of almost 50 percent in current polls, will be ahead of President Bush in those same polls. From then on, what happens is up to him.
Barring catastrophe, always a possibility in big-time politics, the young governor of one of the least of the states, virtually unknown (some would say deservedly so), will be nominated as the Democratic candidate for president on July 15.
From then until Nov. 3, the campaign will be his to win or lose. And it will be negative -- as it should be. The real issue, from the challenger's perspective is just how bad has George Bush been as president.
There are rhythms and cycles to presidential campaigns and to the relationships and relative power of the players in the making of presidents -- the candidates, the press and the people.
In the early primary going, a year before the real and final election, the press is the dominant power in the public evaluation of essentially unknown quantities such as Clinton, Tsongas, Harkin, Smith, Jones or whoever. But that power shifts rather dramatically to the candidates as soon as there are only two of them, and that's about where we are now.
Then, after Labor Day, some would say after the World Series, the people, at least those who vote, come awake like a sleeping giant and make their choice. It is a limited choice by then, of course, but people usually are quite capable of weighing the difference between the two candidates and the effect each might have on the lives of themselves and the nation.
At the moment, pollsters tell us that Governor Clinton has ''unprecedented'' negatives, though his 47 percent disapproval rate is not that different from the 37 percent disapproval rate Vice President Bush had four years ago. The numbers are seen as some sort of gospel, as if people really knew the man Clinton and his record.
All most of us know now is that he has great energy and tenacity, smiles and talks too much, and has trouble hiding or moderating unnerving ambition and a tendency to shade the truth. That ignores the fact that is surpassingly significant: He is not George Bush!
Except for that last one -- the Bush record is the real issue of 1992 -- most voting Americans (a separate class now) will willingly suspend disbelief regarding Mr. Clinton for a critical few weeks beginning sometime after the June 2 California primary. He will become again, for most Americans, a tabula rasa, regaining the power to define himself one last time before going after Mr. Bush.
By then only the two of them will be left standing, yin and yang molded to each other. (Any third candidate, including H. Ross Perot, will peak at the moment of announcement, if history is a reliable guide.)
After the conventions -- the Republicans begin on Aug. 17 -- the role of the press, so critical as a screening device at the beginning of the process, will fade toward stenography as November approaches. The candidates themselves, in more understandable one-on-one combat, take over the roles of attackers and analysts of public records and private character, with the emphasis on the former.
The fun and games end as the public becomes more interested -- press power is inversely proportional to public interest and participation -- and the people's job becomes choosing someone to run the country, as opposed to, say, judging the strangers fighting for second and third place on Super Tuesday.
That, at least, is the way it usually works and probably should. The system goes haywire if candidates do not understand it. Michael Dukakis, the Democratic candidate in 1988, did not seem to get it. He, not the press, was supposed to attack Mr. Bush, his works and the workings of the Republican Party.
The press does the dirty work in the primaries; candidates must do their own in September and October. In fact, during the real two-man campaign, the power of the press fades away and candidates control the dialogue, or they should.
With an incumbent running, the real issue is always his or her record. The challenger's campaign is by definition negative; the job is to challenge what has been done. With the possible exception of Dwight Eisenhower, no modern presidential candidate has won because Americans were so impressed by what he had done with his life.
Bill Clinton is no Eisenhower; he has got to try to tear out George Bush's throat. If the Republicans, hiding behind independent committees, start running Willie Horton commercials again, Mr. Clinton has to lay the responsibility where it belongs, at Mr. Bush's muddy feet.
If the campaign is sleazy, Mr. Bush is a sleazebag, but by then only Mr. Clinton will be in the position to say that. If he does not, he will lose.
Not much will happen in these next few weeks, which makes them all the more important to the challenger and the challenge to the status quo.
Mr. Clinton might be well-advised to get a little more laryngitis before July. He needs the time for his last chance to figure out who he is or who he wants to be and to work out why he thinks Mr. Bush is so bad that the country should go to the trouble to send the president back home, wherever that is.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.