WASHINGTON -- If rattling the opposition is half the battle, Democratic nominee Bill Clinton may be halfway to the White House.
The Republican Party has worked itself into a frenzy of finger-pointing, hand-wringing and rumor-mongering that grows in proportion to Mr. Clinton's 2-to-1 lead over President Bush in the polls.
Bush supporters in the White House, at his campaign headquarters, on Capitol Hill and in the field are desperate to begin some kind of counteroffensive powerful enough to bring their candidate back into the contest.
"Obviously there is deep worry, and it's not hard to explain when the poll numbers are 58 percent to 29 percent," said William J. Bennett, a former top official in both the Bush and Reagan administrations. "Our line of offense -- what we say we're going to do -- is not clear. Something needed to happen six months ago, yesterday, ASAP."
Late last week, even the president himself seemed to come unglued. In an uncharacteristic public display, he heatedly told a heckler to "shut up" during his speech to families of Vietnam-era servicemen still listed as missing in action.
Mostly, the jitters have been caused by the depressing economic news, which shows the recovery is so slow a majority of Americans don't believe it has begun.
But Mr. Clinton's skillful orchestration of this month's Democratic National Convention, followed by a wildly successful 1,000-mile bus trip through the back roads of middle America, further spooked and dispirited the GOP.
"They're having a high old roll and rolling around in the hay bales having some fun -- it was a masterstroke of presentation and magnificent production all along the way," said Wyoming Republican Alan K. Simpson, the president's closest friend in the Senate. "And we're licking our chops waiting for our shot."
In trying to explain their troubles, the Republicans blame the press, Democrats in Congress and each other. A campaign to dump Vice President Dan Quayle from the ticket seemed to ignite almost spontaneously last week. Many in the party are demanding the heads of two of Mr. Bush's top advisers, Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady and Budget Director Richard G. Darman, as well.
"I'm confounded and confused by the entire thing," said Rep. Marge Roukema, a moderate Republican from New Jersey, a must-win state for Mr. Bush. "I just don't know where we're
going. I don't know what the direction is from the top."
A still unofficial takeover of operations at both the White House and campaign headquarters by Secretary of State James A. Baker III is anticipated with such certainty that Bush aides joke among themselves that they can't do anything unless they "clear it with the secretary."
Most ominously, a growing number in the GOP are starting to blame the president, who until recently had been largely absolved by his supporters from responsibility for the chaos around him.
"This president does not like to mobilize the public," said Republican Rep. Vin Weber of Minnesota, a prominent young conservative expected to play an active role in the Bush campaign. "I think he is not comfortable articulating his views. It is a weakness on his part."
In the eye of this storm -- which also has included a flurry of unfounded rumors about his health -- the 68-year-old president has been forced to reassure his own staff.
He gave a closed-door pep talk at the White House last week, assuring his aides that Mr. Quayle's job was safe, that Mr. Baker's move was not yet definite and that he didn't want them adding to the speculation. He reminded the staff that he's been through tough fights before and learned it was crucial not to panic.
At a Cabinet meeting later, he made a public effort to dispel "all these crazy rumors."
Bush advisers had predicted that Mr. Clinton would emerge from his convention with a lead. But they figured the president would be able to recoup during the Republican National Convention next month in Houston and that by Labor Day the candidates would be roughly even.
Now some top Bush campaign aides say they would be satisfied to be within 10 points of Mr. Clinton by Labor Day.
"He's the best Democratic nominee I've ever seen," said Charles Black, a senior Bush campaign adviser.
Mr. Black noted that Mr. Clinton and his running mate, Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee, have succeeded so far in presenting themselves as candidates for change, but in a way that is not threatening to the political center.
But Bush backers are frustrated because they say the president doesn't seem to be doing anything to present his own agenda for change.
"All he talks about is wanting a change in Congress so he can have Republican control," said Ann Stone, national chairman of Republicans for Choice, an abortion-rights group. "People don't want to hear that. They're saying, 'What if you don't get a Republican Congress?' "