WASHINGTON -- President Bush's comeback campaign is advancing at a crawl as its various political themes and gambits fail to register with most voters.
Following a week in which Mr. Bush offered a major repackaging of his economic proposals and Democrat Bill Clinton took a new round of pounding on his military draft record, there has been little measurable impact among the electorate, new public opinion surveys show.
Highly publicized government giveaways to key voter groups -- foreign arms sales for defense plants, agricultural subsidies for farmers, accelerated logging schedules for timber-cutters, massive aid for hurricane-stricken South Florida -- also has done little or nothing to help the president close the gap with his challenger.
"The Bush campaign just isn't getting anywhere on the two major things it has to accomplish: to raise doubts about Clinton and convince Americans there is at least some chance that a second Bush administration will be better than the first," said Andrew Kohut, pollster for the Times-Mirror Center for The People and the Press.
Voter surveys released this week show the challenger's lead ranging from 9 percent, in a CNN-Gallup poll yesterday, to 15 percent in a Times-Mirror poll taken last weekend. Although that range represents a substantial improvement from Mr. Clinton's 2-to-1 lead following his nomination in July, it hasn't changed much for several weeks.
With the time for overcoming Mr. Clinton's lead shrinking, Bush aides say they are putting their hopes on paid advertising, the wild card that might result from Ross Perot's entering the race and continuing voter uneasiness with Mr. Clinton that may not harden into opposition until the final days of the race.
"I know we're just sitting there," said a senior Bush campaign official. "We didn't get the resonance we'd hoped for from the economic plan, and contrary to popular belief we never thought the draft thing really had the heft to be a silver bullet. But we know there's something bizarre going on out there and we just have to keep at it."
There have been a few hopeful signs for Mr. Bush lately.
Although the president's standing in the polls has not changed much since mid-summer, the race has tightened because Mr. Clinton's huge mid-summer lead has shrunk a bit among some voters, including those Mr. Kohut calls the "pocketbook" Democrats, who say they don't have enough money to make ends meet.
That might mean Mr. Bush's attempt to label Mr. Clinton as a "tax and spend" Democrat has penetrated a little.
Republican officials also note that the race is tightening on a state-by-state basis. The two candidates are now running about even in key states such as Florida, Texas, Ohio and New Jersey, these surveys show.
But these are virtually all must-win states for the president, and the fact that Mr. Bush has not safely locked them away at this point underscores his continuing political weakness.
A poll conducted early this week for The Wall Street Journal did show the president's job approval rising for the first time since January -- a key indicator in an election that almost inevitably will be a referendum on the incumbent's performance. The bad news for Mr. Bush is that those who think he's performed poorly still out outnumber his admirers by a margin of 53 percent to 40 percent.
Mr. Bush's stop yesterday in Oklahoma and Georgia pointed out another facet of his dilemma: The base of support that elected him in 1988 is still very soft. If he has to fight this hard for the South and in other base areas, the equally crucial Midwest and Northeast may prove out of reach.
Even the president's fund raising has been affected, as the Republican Party finds itself behind the Democrats for the first time in decades and scrambling to come up with a $10 million contribution for Mr. Bush's campaign to match what the other party has already been able to raise for its nominee.
"We just have to keep hammering away on the differences between the two candidates on their approaches to the economy, which I'm convinced can only be done with paid media," the senior Bush official said.
The Bush campaign began airing this week a $2.5 million series of ads that are intended to generate more positive feelings about the president as a leader on the economy by highlighting his approach of opening trade and encouraging private business ventures.
Surveys show most people don't even realize Mr. Bush has any plan for dealing with the economy, an obstacle the campaign must surmount before it can get voters to choose the president's plan over Mr. Clinton's.
But "trust" is really what the Bush campaign hopes the presidential election will be about because surveys show that Mr. Clinton is still vulnerable there. In the most recent Times-Mirror survey the president was selected by a margin of 53 percent to 28 percent as the candidate who would use good judgment in a crisis.
The draft issue, particularly the inconsistencies in Mr. Clinton's account of how he escaped military service in the Vietnam War, seemed to have the potential to feed doubts about the Democrat's character and judgment.
But a new wave of publicity on the topic hasn't ignited the public yet.
Sixty percent of those surveyed in CNN-Gallup poll this week said they are satisfied with Mr. Clinton's explanations, compared to 30 percent who said they were not.
In contrast, 55 percent of those same poll respondents said they weren't satisfied with Mr. Bush's explanation that he was "out of the loop" on the Iran-Contra scandal -- a controversy that has never seemed to hurt him.
"It's a building process," a GOP official said of efforts to connect Mr. Clinton's alleged duplicity on the draft question to other issues in order to demonstrate a pattern of behavior. "One brick at a time."