WASHINGTON -- Three national opinion polls were published and broadcast early last week showing Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton leading President Bush by 12 to 15 percentage points. Later in the week, two others had the margin at 10 percent and 9 percent respectively.
Does that mean Mr. Bush is "closing the gap"? Unsurprisingly, some Republicans are making that case. But the hard facts are, first, that the differences are all within the statistical margin of error and, second, that the key indicators show the race essentially flat. As has been the case for several weeks now, support for Mr. Bush hovers around 40 percent, while Mr. Clinton's runs at 50 percent or higher.
More significant, perhaps, are some of the so-called "internals." Although Mr. Bush's approval ratings have risen marginally in the past few weeks, his negatives remain higher than his positives -- a juxtaposition that usually is fatal for any political candidate. At the same time, although his approval has declined slightly, Mr. Clinton still enjoys a net positive rating.
On the critical question of voters' general attitudes, the polls continue to show 70 percent or more believe that the country is "off on the wrong track," compared with 20 percent or less who say it is "headed in the right direction." In California, the wrong-track number is 82 percent and the right-direction figure is 16 percent. Those figures are not the stuff of success for incumbents.
There is, however, a lesson to be learned simply from the fact that the numbers have not changed in any significant way. And the lesson is that the campaign by President Bush to convince the voters that he has a comprehensive economic agenda -- outlined 10 days ago before the Economic Club of Detroit -- has failed, at least so far.
On the contrary, his ratings on handling the economy and domestic concerns remain weak compared with those for Mr. Clinton. Those skeptical voters seem to believe that either of them will raise taxes in the next four years, despite Mr. Bush's renewed avowal that it cannot happen here.
Mr. Bush, moreover, probably has used up his last chance to define an economic agenda that will be convincing. He has already touted three speeches supposed to accomplish that purpose -- the State of the Union address last winter, the acceptance speech at Houston in August and now the Detroit speech in September. That is three strikes with nothing more than a loud foulfor his trouble.
The new data also may suggest the failure of the second `D element of the Bush strategy these days -- the campaign to raise doubts about Mr. Clinton by hammering at his history of avoiding the draft during the war in Vietnam. The figures on the number of voters who say the draft issue will affect their decision remains under 20 percent.
In this case, nonetheless, political professionals in both parties are somewhat more cautious about drawing inferences. Some believe that the draft issue has not fully flowered in the public consciousness. Others warn that voters may be unwilling to say they will consider the draft question -- because it would make their decisions appear based on a trivial matter -- but still will feed the issue into their calculation of whether Mr. Clinton can be "trusted" with the presidency, always an important consideration with a challenger running against an incumbent president.
The problem for the Republicans in exploiting the draft issue is the reluctance to make Mr. Bush himself the exploiter. Instead, as he demonstrated before the National Guard Association convention in Utah, Mr. Bush wants to stay on the high road while Vice President Dan Quayle and campaign minions beat the drums on the new "evidence" proving what everyone already knows -- that Mr. Clinton went to some pains to avoid the draft 23 years ago.
The flaw in this strategy is that Mr. Quayle and the campaign flacks do not have the stature to give the accusations much weight. Flacks are, after all, just that and Mr. Quayle is, after all, the one who served his time at a typewriter in the Indiana National Guard.
But if the Bush campaign cannot "move the numbers," as the politicians put it, with either the economic agenda or the attacks on Mr. Clinton's credibility, it is difficult to imagine just what strategy will work in the six weeks-plus remaining before Nov. 3.