WARREN, Mich. -- Democrat Bill Clinton sharpened a new edge yesterday in his attack on President Bush, taunting the incumbent as a "do-nothing" president and an opponent afraid to debate in this key Midwestern state tomorrow.
And he unabashedly launched the campaign's first negative television advertisement, even though it is Mr. Clinton who has the double-digit lead in the polls only six weeks from the election.
Although a bipartisan commission canceled the first proposed presidential debate after Mr. Bush declined to attend, Mr. Clinton launched a three-day swing through Michigan and Illinois that will end tomorrow in East Lansing, the town disappointed by cancellation of the debate.
"He knows that he cannot defend his economic record to people who put him in office four years ago," Mr. Clinton told a crowd in Macomb County yesterday.
The county is a mostly white suburb of Detroit that is often called the symbolic home of the so-called Reagan Democrats, blue-collar voters who deserted their traditional party for the Republicans, starting with Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Mr. Bush carried the county four years ago with two-thirds of the vote, but it has suffered since Mr. Bush took office, with the unemployment rate rising from 7 percent in 1989 to 10 percent now. And Clinton aides picked the spot to put a new facet on the attack: that Mr. Bush hasn't even tried to "make it better."
"After four years of raising your taxes, selling out your jobs, betraying your values, and violating your trust, Bush and Quayle want to do it to you all over again," said Mr. Clinton, igniting a roar from a partisan crowd of several thousand at a community college.
Mr. Clinton also released the first negative television advertisement of the campaign, which began to air last night on television stations in Georgia, Michigan and another dozen or so key states.
The ad features statements by Mr. Bush asserting that the country's economic recession wasn't happening or was on the ebb. For example, Mr. Bush is shown during a July speech saying: "The economy continues to grow." Then a narrator says, "July 1992: Unemployment is the highest in eight years. If George Bush doesn't understand the problem . . . how can he solve it? We can't afford four more years."
"It's not a negative ad," Mr. Clinton told reporters. "It uses his own words." And he added: "I think the American people are entitled to know what he said all along."
Torie Clarke, a Bush spokeswoman, said the race was "not just about the state of the economy, it's what plan do you have to move the country forward.
"What's most appalling is they're trying to exploit the economic hardship suffered by many people," said Ms. Clarke.
Both the Democratic nominee's speech and the next two days of bashing Mr. Bush for failing to debate are part of a continuing Clinton tactic that defies conventional wisdom: When ahead of your opponent, attack. That's what Mr. Clinton often did when his campaign lagged during the primaries.
"It's a tougher edge," said Paul Begala, a Clinton aide. "We might be ahead double-digit in the polls, but we've got to fight like hell."
From Michigan, Mr. Clinton headed to a predominantly black area of Chicago for an evening voter registration rally.