NEW YORK -- He's put on weight since the last time most Americans were watching, and he's still hoarse-throated and baggy-eyed. But Bill Clinton is in remarkably good political shape as he steps back into the spotlight.
On the eve of his party's national convention here, the Democratic nominee-to-be finds himself squarely in the midst of a three-way dead heat for the presidency.
"Under the circumstances, after all I've been through, to be in what is a functional three-way dead heat is not all that bad," Mr. Clinton told Time magazine. "I'll take that."
For Mr. Clinton, the good news is that he is re-entering the fray at a moment when voters may be willing to take a second look.
The bad news is that his recent gains have less to do with what he's done than with what's been going on around him.
Indeed, his chances of being elected depend largely on events beyond his control: what happens to the economy and the candidacy of wild-card Ross Perot between now and November.
"Two months ago, Democrats were worried about getting mugged in November," said Harrison Hickman, a Democratic pollster. "I wouldn't say the mood now is one of exhilaration. I'd call it hopefulness."
Several weeks of skirmishing between President Bush and independent challenger Perot have damaged the image of both men. Mr. Clinton, who kept out of the fray, looks better by comparison.
"He's not being measured against any saints out there," noted David Axelrod, a Democratic consultant in Chicago and an informal adviser to the Clinton campaign.
Mr. Clinton has helped himself politically since the primaries ended last month. He's confronted rap-singer Sister Souljah -- and, by extension, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. He's put a revised economic plan before an electorate hungry for solutions, or at least the appearance of solutions. And he's chosen a fellow Baby Boom moderate from the mid-South, Tennessee Sen. Al Gore, as his running mate, a pick that managed to be cautious and unconventional at the same time.
The new style
These moves and the four-day coronation in New York that will culminate in his acceptance speech Thursday evening are designed to define Mr. Clinton as a new-style Democrat. He and his advisers hope the nation will see him as a centrist candidate free of control by the party's special interests, whose suffocating embrace helped produce Democratic defeats in five of the past six presidential elections.
Mr. Clinton will be aiming his message of change at independent-minded voters in the television audience, who represent the key to the November election, more than at party regulars in the hall.
In a sense, his challenge is the opposite of the one that Jimmy Carter, the last Southerner the Democrats nominated and the last Democrat elected president, faced when he came to Madison Square Garden to claim his prize 16 years ago. Mr. Carter, an outsider with few links to the party's liberal establishment, needed to reassure hard-core Democrats that he was one of them.
"The convention is Clinton's one moment in the sun," said a campaign adviser to Mr. Perot, who is planning his own convention-type show next month, probably after the Republicans meet in Houston. "Clinton's advantage is that he gets the first shot. The disadvantage is that there ain't nothing after that."
What comes next
What is coming for Mr. Clinton after the convention seems clear: a brutally negative campaign.
With roughly four of every five Americans convinced that the country is on the wrong track, the Bush re-election strategy will be to persuade voters that the only safe choice for the next four years is the man currently in the White House.
"The Republicans will come at Clinton with as vicious an attack, if not more so, than they came at Mike Dukakis with," predicted John Sasso, the 1988 Dukakis campaign manager. "They're going to try to destroy Clinton personally. About the only thing they can do well is personal attacks."
No matter how well convention week goes for him, Mr. Clinton will enter the general election campaign bearing the scars of the primary season. Questions about his honesty, raised during a series of controversies about his personal life, have never been put to rest.
Republican attempts to exploit these doubts are already under way. Last week, the promoter of the pro-Bush "Willie Horton" commercial in the 1988 campaign unveiled a plan that would allow people to pay him $4.99 per call to hear portions of tapes that Gennifer Flowers made of her conversations with Mr. Clinton; the singer says the tapes prove she and Mr. Clinton had a lengthy affair, which he has denied.
Mr. Bush denounced the anti-Clinton effort, but the president is making "family values" a centerpiece of his re-election message, a none-too-subtle effort that focuses attention on the same question.