AUSTIN, Texas -- A three-way race allows the politicians to play all sorts of games with numbers. And here in Texas the key number for the Democrats is 36.
That is the percentage of the vote Walter F. Mondale managed here against President Ronald Reagan in 1984. So the Democrats figure it is the rock-bottom base for Bill Clinton eight years later in the race with President Bush and Ross Perot for the state's 32 electoral votes, the third-largest prize after California (54) and New York (33).
The 36 percent would be enough, of course, to win an essentially even three-way contest. At this early stage, however, the contest is not essentially even. Polls here show Perot with close to 40 percent, Bush with just over 30 percent and Clinton around 25 percent and not showing any movement. "Clinton is a flat-liner right now," said a Democratic professional who has been following the numbers.
Clinton's base is made up principally of blacks and Mexican-Americans -- called "browns" in Texas politics -- who gave Mondale 27 of that 36 percent eight years ago. That isn't enough to do the trick, so the operative question about Clinton is whether he can win enough votes from white liberals and traditionally conservative Democrats, particularly in rural East Texas, to get the 40 percent-plus probably needed to succeed.
The strategists for the Democratic campaign seem convinced that goal is within range. Garry Mauro, the state land commissioner leading the Clinton campaign here, says the Arkansas governor is already a familiar figure in those East Texas areas that abut his state. And Kirk Adams, the professional directing the Democrats' coordinated state campaign here, and Mauro both see problems for Perot with those voters. "There is a rural-urban split on Ross Perot," Adams says.
There are some other elements of the equation that suggest Clinton could be a realistic possibility here. One is the vigorous backing he can expect from the popular governor, Ann Richards. Another is the fact that in the only other statewide contest of note, the Democratic candidate is Lena Guerrero, a Hispanic-American who was appointed to chair the state Railroad Commission last year and now is running for a full term of her own.
Guerrero's potential with brown voters is obvious. "We think it will move South Texas particularly," says Adams. "She'll be a help to everybody, but probably the biggest help to Bill Clinton." But other professionals suspect she will encounter some significant resistance among conservative Democrats and perhaps among some Hispanic men. They point out she polled less than 60 percent of the vote against a token opponent in the Democratic primary in March.
James Oberwetter, the Bush state campaign chief, concedes that "you cannot rule Bill Clinton out in Texas," but still sees the real problem for the president is getting by Perot, whose support in the Dallas area has been running close to 50 percent. Perot, he argues, "has been the central focus of a lot of positive press coverage over the years" and particularly since he leaped into this campaign.
But Oberwetter also believes Perot fever is being cooled by the barrage of controversy over his history. "The Perot people are like the girl hoping this is Mr. Perfect," he says. "Now they've gone out on a a blind date and they're not sure if they want to go on a second date."
Karl Rove, a highly regarded Republican consultant here, claims to detect a similar pattern. "I think he's topped out," he says.
All of this is obviously speculative right now. The Bush and Clinton campaigns are just putting professional staffs into place against Perot's formidable force of volunteers based in Dallas. No one knows which issues will prove to have any sting. Bush has been in the state three times recently, including an appearance at the Republican State Convention at which he gave what neutral observers called a strong speech that evoked emotional enthusiasm from the GOP delegates.
But at this early stage it is at least possible that Clinton can win the 32 electoral votes against Texans Bush and Perot. Considering where he stands nationally, that is a remarkable situation.