New Clinton wins favor, but it's not all his doing Bush, Perot both helped Democrat

August 02, 1992|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Ross Perot may not be the only candidate to have recently vanished from the presidential radar screen. Voters haven't seen much lately of the smooth-talking, slippery fellow they first got to know as Slick Willie.

In his place on the campaign trail has been a warm, likable guy who walks hand-in-hand with his wife, rides a bus around America's white picket fences, talks about his meager, small-town beginnings -- and caused Democrats to wonder if, for the first time since the mid-70s, one of their own might actually make it to the White House.

The once bruised and battle-weary Democratic weakling has almost miraculously become a strapping contender to whom voters have taken a sudden liking. To be sure, part of the dramatic turnabout in public sentiment stems from a carefully orchestrated plan by the Clinton campaign to counter earlier charges of marital infidelity, draft dodging and other such "character" issues by evoking family themes and images and by filling out the Clinton portrait with increased exposure on television and at town meetings.

"We found a lot of forums for people to get to know him," says Clinton media adviser Mandy Grunwald. "He spent a lot of June on television interview shows."

But the sudden surge may have less to do with the Democratic nominee, and more to do with the way this volatile campaign year has unfolded. Some point to the months of critical attention focused on former presidential contender Perot that gave Mr. Clinton the time and space to redefine himself for the electorate.

"If it had not been for the respite Ross Perot gave Clinton -- the opening to build some sense of public identity, a personal sense of self that was not Gennifer Flowers and inept smoking of marijuana -- I don't think he could have done it on his own," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania.

As Mr. Perot and George Bush were beating up on each other, Mr. Clinton, safely out of both Texans' fields of fire, unveiled his economic policy and went on morning news shows and call-in shows to talk about not only his policy positions but his personal history.

Mr. Perot galvanized the anti-Bush, anti-Washington sentiment, and then, as California pollster Mervin Field said last week, "turned the harvest over to Clinton." For the Democrats, the feisty billionaire couldn't have picked a better time.

As the nation watched the once-formidable Perot candidacy crumble on one channel, it saw a handsome Democratic team awash in balloons and confetti and unity, on another.

"Obviously, people perceive substance, but those pictures were dynamite," says University of Maryland communications professor John Splaine.

Continued dissatisfaction with Mr. Bush, and the perception that the Republican camp is in disarray, have also made for a stark contrast between the two parties and thrown Mr. Clinton increasing adulation, reinforced by positive media coverage.

"Some of it is their doing," Democratic strategist Wendy Sherman says of the Clinton campaign's efforts to redefine their candidate. "Some of it is Bush's undoing."

Indeed, the two candidates have appeared to be on opposite ends of a seesaw since the campaign began.

It was just last April, as the Arkansas governor trailed in every matchup with Mr. Bush and was viewed unfavorably by twice as many voters as found him agreeable, that Time magazine wondered on acover, "Why Voters Don't Trust Clinton." Today, Mr. Clinton, regarded favorably by nearly 60 percent of voters, is basking in roughly 20- to 30-point leads over President Bush in national and statewide polls.

Although the distance Mr. Clinton has sprinted ahead is remarkable, one only has to look back to last year -- when Mr. Bush had the approval of nearly 90 percent of the electorate -- to recognize the flimsiness of such measurements. Neither party expects the Clinton momentum, or his sizable lead, to hold.

"The fundamental knowledge that drove his negatives up in the first place is still there," Robert M. Teeter, the Bush campaign chairman, says of Mr. Clinton.

But not surprisingly, a number of voters say they're tilting toward the Democrat out of their increasingly negative feelings toward the incumbent. "It's almost like Clinton is the only one left," says Republican Meredith Light, a Washington advertising producer. "It's like you're forcing yourself to try to like him more."

What she genuinely likes is Mr. Clinton's abortion rights position and the fact that he was "daring" enough to lash out against what he perceived as hateful, racist comments by rapper Sister Souljah and risk a confrontation with the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.

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