NEW YORK -- The withdrawal of Ross Perot will have a radical effect on both the electoral arithmetic and the political dynamics of the 1992 campaign for the presidency.
At the most superficial level, Gov. Bill Clinton has suffered a setback in some states, particularly but not exclusively in the South, in which enough white conservative voters might have been diverted away from President Bush to Mr. Perot to allow the Democratic nominee to win with solid black support and that of perhaps one-third of whites.
The result is that the list of states truly "in play" will be shorter than it would have been in a three-candidate contest, although ++ the Clinton campaign will continue to insist it is running "a 50-state campaign."
At the same time, however, the nature of the campaign is likely to be altered beyond recognition. Mr. Clinton now can appeal to those dismayed by the condition of the country and seeking change without having to compete directly with Mr. Perot. Mr. Bush can seek to depict Mr. Clinton as a dangerous alternative without having to cover his own flanks against Mr. Perot's attacks.
In the immediate aftermath of Mr. Perot's withdrawal, Clinton campaign operatives were insisting there would be no change in their strategy and even that the development represented a plus for the Democratic challenger. But they had been hoping Mr. Perot would remain viable into the fall to give Mr. Clinton more time to establish his own credibility.
The ideal scenario, from the Democratic standpoint, would have been a residual base of support for Mr. Perot Nov. 3 of 10 percent to 15 percent -- a level at which, polling data showed, he would do far more damage to the president than to Mr. Clinton. As the Clinton campaign's poll-taker, Stan Greenberg, put it, "Obviously Perot dropping out has changed the math."
Clinton strategists also argued that their polling found Mr. Clinton relatively stronger against Mr. Bush in a two-way than in a three-way contest -- a view apparently supported by a Washington Post-ABC News survey that found Mr. Clinton with a 14-point lead over Mr. Bush in a head-to-head matchup. Poll-takers, however, are always wary about drawing inferences from such hypothetical pairings.
But there is no question the Perot withdrawal has sent the strategists back to their demographics tables and polling data. Here is the way the contest shapes up now:
Mr. Clinton's prospects have obviously been compromised in several states with substantial electoral-vote prizes, including Texas (32), Florida (25), New Jersey (15), North Carolina (14) and Georgia (13).
The extent of the damage varies, however. It would be no surprise now if the Democrats simply write off Florida, as they did in both 1984 and 1988, but continue to compete aggressively in Texas if Mr. Bush's poll figures there continue to be as weak as they are today.
Generally, the South looks less fertile for Mr. Clinton, but there are some exceptions beyond his own Arkansas and Tennessee, home state of vice presidential nominee Albert Gore Jr. In Louisiana, the black vote is potentially large enough to make Mr. Clinton competitive. The same may be true in Alabama, where Mr. Gore's familiarity in the northern part of the state could save ,, the ticket after all.
There are also some states in which Mr. Clinton may be more competitive with Mr. Perot on the sidelines. This list would include several of the so-called "clean states" -- those with bipartisan traditions of good government -- in which the independent candidate's appeal seemed more persuasive with potential Democratic voters.
That group would include Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Vermont.
The result will be a campaign shaped much like it would have been if there had never been a Ross Perot phenomenon. The single most important contest will be for California's 54 electoral votes, one-fifth the total needed to reach the 270 required to win. From the outset, Democratic strategists have recognized they cannot win without California.
The other battleground states will be predictable -- Pennsylvania (23), Illinois (22), Ohio (21), Michigan (18), Massachusetts (12), Missouri and Wisconsin (11 each). Mr. Clinton will be favored in New York (33) and in a handful of small states with heavy concentrations of Democrats; Mr. Bush will be favored in Texas and Florida, New Jersey (15), North Carolina (14), and Georgia and Virginia (13 each), as well as in 16 or 17 small Southern and Western states that are determinedly conservative.
Politics is more than numbers, however, and there are several variables that cannot be measured at this point -- variables that can be summarized in three questions:
First, how weak is Mr. Bush? The single most striking aspect of the campaign all year has been the consistently low level of enthusiasm for the incumbent. His support has hovered in the 30 percent to 35 percent range for weeks, and his negatives have remained steadily higher than his positives.