HOUSTON -- As they look beyond next week's Republican convention, President Bush's re-election strategists have come up with a road map and a hot-button issue -- Bill Clinton's draft record -- for the general election campaign.
Campaign aides say Mr. Bush will follow the Republican convention with several days of intensive campaigning in the South in an attempt to shore up his political base against the Democratic nominee.
Although there also may be a brief stop in the Midwest, the president's tentative schedule calls for him to follow up the Southern foray with similar campaigning in some of the smaller states of the Far West that his strategists believe he should try to lock up early in the general election campaign.
The early emphasis on the South offers the Republican incumbent what his managers believe is a special opportunity to profit from whatever "bounce" he is given by the convention and perhaps to capture the momentum by pulling quickly ahead in several states.
Although Mr. Bush is trailing Mr. Clinton in most states in which recent polls have been taken, his advisers point out that the margins are smaller -- often less than 10 percentage points -- in some of the Southern states. In Virginia, for example, the most recent survey gives Mr. Clinton a 7-point lead, compared with margins of 15 to more than 20 points in national polls.
Despite polls to the contrary, most political strategists in both parties consider Mr. Bush the clear favorite in several Southern states -- Florida, Virginia, South Carolina and Mississippi are the most obvious -- that have been voting consistently and strongly Republican in recent presidential elections. Bush operatives also bTC believe he can win several others considered "in play" at the moment -- including Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama and perhaps Louisiana.
The president also is at least a nominal favorite in Texas, although a survey here last month showed Mr. Clinton leading by 14 points. The Democrats are morning line favorites in Arkansas and Tennessee, the home states of Mr. Clinton and vice presidential nominee Al Gore.
Mr. Bush also will be a heavy favorite in several Western states with determinedly conservative electorates such as Arizona, Alaska, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming and North Dakota. Although they have few electoral votes, their prizes taken together with those winnable in the South could give the president a base of close to 150 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.
The Bush strategy is based on several premises. The first is that Mr. Bush is facing an uphill fight for the richest prize, California's 54 electoral votes, and in New York, which has 33.
This means that the critical battlegrounds for the Republicans will be the states of the industrial belt running from New Jersey west through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin.
A second premise is that the base states will be particularly susceptible to conservative appeals on issues other than the economy.
Republican strategists who have been gathered here all week for platform deliberations, both inside and outside the Bush operation, are particularly intrigued by the appeal of an attack on Mr. Clinton's history of avoiding the draft during the war in Vietnam. They believe it is an issue that, unlike the question of marital fidelity, can be raised without evoking a backlash.
Some Republicans fear the use of the issue will revive the questions of four years ago about Vice President Dan Quayle's service in the National Guard during the same war. But the consensus among professionals is that such questions have far more relevance when they involve the head of the ticket.
Thus, for example, voters will be asked to consider how a president and commander in chief could send young people into military combat situations when he was unwilling to do the same himself as a young man.
And they will be reminded of the letter Mr. Clinton wrote to an officer in the Reserve Officers Training Corps in 1969 in which he said he hoped to help the officer "understand more clearly how so many fine people have come to find themselves still loving their country but loathing the military . . . "
The Bush strategists believe that culturally conservative voters, particularly in the South and Far West, are inclined to be more patriotic than others elsewhere and may react against a candidate who once confessed to "loathing" the military. The issue also could play well in sections of states elsewhere with large populations of war veterans -- western Pennsylvania, for example -- or servicemen on active duty.
The Republicans believe the issue gives them a wedge to raise questions about Mr. Clinton as a liberal elitist who used avenues not available to everyone to avoid the draft.
Democrats have been worried about the draft issue ever since it surfaced during the New Hampshire primary campaign last winter. But they have consoled themselves with the theory that the concern with the condition of the economy would be so intense voters would be less interested in something that happened more than 20 years ago.