New York -- Little did Democrats know when they poured into New York last week to nominate the Clinton-Gore ticket that they would arrive in a three-way race and leave in a two-way race. It was not exactly the news they wanted to hear, though they put on a brave face when Ross Perot gave up his bid for the presidency.
The Democratic dilemma with the Perot pullout lies in the political math. Polls indicate that an extraordinary 63 percent of voters are still in play, as compared to the usual 20 percent at this stage of prior election campaigns. For every Democrat defecting to Mr. Perot before his pullout, two Republicans were deserting President Bush.
Even more, state-by-state strategy is now in disarray. The selection of an all-Southern ticket -- Bill Clinton from Arkansas; Al Gore from Tennessee -- was a clear message that the Democrats hoped, with President Bush and Mr. Perot splitting conservative voting strength, to make inroads into what is now the Republican Solid South.
So the ill-fated Perot bid for the presidency was an assist for the Democrats as long as it lasted and a loss now that he has withdrawn. Yet the party has been reluctant to acknowledge either calculation, and for good reason. Rarely has there been an election more volatile, more unpredictable, more filled with peaks and valleys and the kinds of surprises that disrupted Democratic assumptions even as the New York convention ran its course.
It says something about Mr. Clinton and his attempt to move the Democratic Party to the mainstream, where elections are won, that he was well-positioned for the Perot withdrawal. Foremost has been his emphasis on the need for a change, an issue he no longer has to share with Mr. Perot. In his acceptance speech was a hastily written appeal for the votes of Perot supporters, many of whom fall into the ABC (Anybody But Bush) camp though they are white, suburban and moderate to conservative.
The Arkansas governor also proclaimed a New Covenant in the Democratic tradition of New Freedom, New Deal and New Frontier. But there liberal tradition ended. One paragraph uttered by the Democratic candidate in Madison Square Garden JTC Thursday night told it all: ''The choice we offer is not conservative or liberal, Democratic or Republican. It is different. It is new.'' Imagine such apostasy from Harry Truman or Hubert Humphrey! A Democratic candidate who does not offer a Democratic choice? Imagine.
This was not just rhetoric on Mr. Clinton's part. In his speech and in his platform he defied Democratic shibboleths against moving his party right and center after years of Reaganite attacks on the very word and concept of liberalism. He promised that middle-class incomes -- but not taxes -- would go up. So much for Walter Mondale. He praised his own record in Arkansas, but said there is ''no Arkansas miracle.'' So much for Michael Dukakis.
More substantively, Mr. Clinton brushed aside the old Democratic penchant for wealth redistribution and government social welfare spending to extol entrepreneurship, a strong defense based on a willingness to use force, workfare rather than welfare, higher education loans that must be paid back, more empowerment and less entitlement, job creation in the private sector. ''We Democrats have some changing to do,'' the Democratic nominee proclaimed. ''It is time for us to realize there is not a government program for every problem.''
This statement, which sounded like something out of a Reagan manifesto, and some even more iconoclastic assertions in the Clinton-crafted party platform take on new meaning as the two established parties go after the millions of unhappy voters who rushed to the Perot banner.
On some hot-button liberal issues, especially pro-choice on abortion, health care and something approaching an industrial policy, voters who strayed to Mr. Perot may find a comfortable perching place in the Clinton campaign. But the real battle, the battle still unresolved, is what happens to the conservatives who went over in much larger numbers to the Perot camp. President Bush and Governor Clinton will be recasting their campaign pitches in coming weeks in an all-out struggle to win the hearts and minds of these voters, many of whom may now be inclined to stay away from the ballot box.