WASHINGTON -- The latest national poll showing Gov. Bill Clinton climbing into the lead over the two presidential combatants of the last week, Ross Perot and President Bush, may be only another ride on the roller coaster of public opinion in this unpredictable election year. Clinton may find himself back in third place in other polls in another day or two, or in this one -- by the Washington Post and ABC News -- in another few weeks.
But the timing of this boost, no matter how temporary, is especially fortuitous for the Arkansas governor as he approaches the Democratic National Convention the week after next. The numbers among the sample of 1,007 adults -- Clinton 33 percent of likely voters (up from 26 percent three weeks earlier), Perot 30 percent (down from 38 percent) and Bush 29 percent (down from 30 percent) -- amount for practical purposes to a three-way tie. The important thing, though, is that they put Clinton squarely in the mix for the first time since the poll started measuring the Perot phenomenon in early April.
Clinton's big concern has been that he would become irrelevant in voters' minds as Perot and Bush contended for support -- and tried to tear each other down -- with increasing intensity and news-media attention. Once Democrats in wholesale numbers started to conclude that they would be wasting their vote on Clinton as a sure third-place finisher, it would be extremely difficult for him to recover.
The Clinton campaign has been striving diligently to stay in the picture, most recently with his revised, detailed plan for economic recovery. According to this poll, 52 percent of likely voters surveyed said they approved of it, to 31 percent opposed, suggesting that the plan's release played at least a part in Clinton's improvement in the polls.
The other notable political move by Clinton before the Post-ABC News poll was taken was his criticism of black rap artist Sister Souljah at the recent Rainbow Coalition meeting, triggering yet another row with Jesse Jackson. In spite of this clash, the poll showed Clinton slightly improving among blacks.
Much of Clinton's recovery, however, may well be the result of voter disapproval of the sniping between Perot and Bush over Perot's alleged penchant for investigating others. While it was going on, Clinton held his tongue, essentially adopting a let-you-and-him-fight posture. The contrast between that sniping and his own presentation of a serious set of proposals to spur job and industrial recovery clearly put Clinton in a favorable light.
Just as significant in the poll as Clinton's rise was Perot's slippage of 8 percent -- and Bush's failure to pick up any of Perot's lost support. The president, in fact, appears on the basis of this poll to be in a free fall since early April, going from 37 percent approval of all adults surveyed to 25 percent and from 35 percent to 25 percent among registered voters, while leveling off among likely voters.
When Perot supporters who said they were likely voters were asked how they would vote if Perot did not run, 46 percent said they would back Clinton, to 36 percent for Bush. While certainly not good news for the president, it was an improvement over three weeks earlier, when Clinton led him, 51 percent to 27 percent, as the alternate choice of Perot likely voters.
All this suggests that the situation is extremely fluid, with voter attitudes about Perot a critical ingredient in the mix. Asked whether they liked Perot more or less the more they heard about him, 42 percent said less to 39 percent who said more. And for all of Perot's slippage, the survey found that the voter disaffection from the political parties on which Perot has fed remains high. Some 82 percent said they thought both parties were "pretty much out of touch with the American people" and 66 percent said it would be good for the country "if there were a new major political party to compete with the Democrats and Republicans."
The Clinton campaign has been looking to the party convention in New York for the usual boost that such forums give a presidential nominee. Clinton is poised now to take full advantage of that circumstance, especially if he makes an impressive vice-presidential choice -- and if the Bush-Perot row continues to cast each of them in a bad light.