WASHINGTON. — Washington -- It is mind-boggling that Bill Clinton, who was a political corpse in March, is favored over President Bush in July in all regions of America, with a national margin of more than 20 per cent. Only Lazarus coming back from the dead can compare with this political miracle.
The question of the hour is whether Mr. Bush can pull off a similar miracle and wipe out the Clinton lead. Republicans have fallen back on such bromides as, ''Every sickness ain't death,'' ''It's not over till it's over on November 3,'' and ''Remember what happened to Dukakis?''
Still, gloom pervades the White House, not only because the Clinton-Gore ticket came out of the New York convention with a record boost, but because nothing about the economic or social condition of America favors a Republican comeback.
In 1980, Jimmy Carter came out of the Democratic convention leading Ronald Reagan by a single percentage point. But President Carter was burdened by the Iran hostage crisis, and by an economy that was woefully sick. Mr. Reagan defeated him handily.
In 1984, Walter Mondale emerged from the convention with a 2-point lead over Ronald Reagan. But Mr. Mondale admitted that he would raise taxes to stop the bleeding deficits that now amount to more than $1 billion a day and have made the United States a debtor nation. President Reagan defeated him in a landslide.
In 1988, Michael Dukakis left the convention with a 17-point lead over Vice President Bush. Governor Dukakis ran an outrageously bad campaign, Mr. Bush's lips lied when he said ''no new taxes,'' and the Bush campaign used ads about a black rapist-murderer, Willie Horton, to tie Mr. Dukakis to the crimes Americans most feared. Mr. Bush won in a landslide.
The big difference this year is that Mr. Bush presides over an economic disaster far worse than the one that bedeviled Mr. Carter. How can this president make up 22 points in a time when 10 million Americans are jobless and another 7 million are half-employed?
The crime problem is greater than when Mr. Bush took over. When Americans are clamoring for change, and Ross Perot has leaped off his white horse, how does President Bush convince voters that he and Dan Quayle, not Bill Clinton and Al Gore, are the ''agents of change''?
It appears that Mr. Bush faces a mission impossible. Since he cannot sell himself or his record, his only hope is to discredit Mr. Clinton, to literally destroy his character.
Some Republicans are hinting that they will try to revive claims that Mr. Clinton was a draft dodger. When Dan Quayle has a record of hiding out from the Vietnam War, that ploy will have limited impact, even if President Bush dumps Vice President Quayle, which is now a likely scenario.
Mr. Bush is trying already to portray Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore as ''Trojan horse'' moderates who, given power, would be liberal taxers and spenders. But Mr. Bush has the tough job of explaining why the government bureaucracy is bigger today than it was 12 years ago, and why President Reagan and he have delivered up a river of red ink that has put every American family $65,000 in debt to Japan, Germany, Korea, Taiwan and other foreigners.
There seems to be no course for the Bush campaign but to try to revive charges of sexual infidelity against Mr. Clinton. The nation appears to have had its moment of titillation and then dismissed the allegations of Gennifer Flowers.
The convention helped Mr. Clinton to rise above the ''character'' issue. But the Republicans have an army of gumshoes out probing for anything, old or new, that they think would discredit either Bill or Hillary Clinton.
Mr. Bush has said that he will ''do whatever it takes to win.'' What it may take is the dirtiest campaign in American history. But, against this incredible Clinton lead, even a sewer campaign may not be enough.
Carl Rowan is a syndicated columnist.