Campaign '92: reversal of fortunes For Bush, Clinton, sharp turnabouts

October 11, 1992|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- It wasn't all that long ago that Democrats feared they'd be committing political suicide if they put as battered and flawed a candidate as Bill Clinton at the top of their ticket. And it wasn't that long ago that Republicans figured George Bush, Desert Storm victory in his pocket, could waltz to Inauguration Day without breaking a sweat.

Now, of course, it's the president who appears battered and beleaguered and the Arkansas governor who looks like he's on his way to the ball.

The two candidates who'll meet in the first round of debates tonight, along with Ross Perot, have gone through not only one of the most volatile election years ever but also some of the most remarkable transformations of image and popularity in modern political history.

There is no single moment when fortunes changed for each of the candidates. But a look at the two candidates' favorable ratings throughout the year -- charted, they look like mirror images of each other -- suggests several pivotal and decisive moments along the way that changed the profile and perceptions of each man.

In Mr. Clinton's case, many see as turning points in his campaign his survival of the difficult New Hampshire primary, the skillfully choreographed Democratic convention and, perhaps most of all, Ross Perot's game of hide-and-seek.

For George Bush, a steady drip of poor domestic news has been telescoped by such events as his trip to a J.C. Penney store in Frederick lastChristmastime to buy socks and thus spur economic growth, and his ill-fated trip to Japan in January.

While pollsters say it's not that unusual for an incumbent to rise or fall dramatically in public opinion during an election year, they say it's more unusual -- virtually unheard of, in fact -- for a challenger as unpopular as Mr. Clinton was during the primaries to be suddenly deemed acceptable and even desirable.

A number of strategists trace the rehabilitation of his image back to the New Hampshire primary in February. He was pummeled with charges of adultery, draft-dodging and slickness, but kept on going.

"Clinton gutted it out," says Bob Beckel, campaign manager for Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale in 1984. "He went to event after event, shook every hand he could get a hold of, and fought his way back into the race. He was walking around with three harpoons in him and he came back."

Daniel Hallin, a communications professor at the University of California at San Diego, says he remembers being initially skeptical about Mr. Clinton. "After a while, I thought, 'This guy is a good campaigner. It's quite amazing he's been able to go through such incredible difficulties and survive.' "

His competition during the primaries was admittedly weak, but voters took another look each time the Arkansas governor racked up another victory and knocked out another Democratic opponent.

Still, even by the end of the primary season, he trailed in two-way and three-way polls and continued to be beset by questions of character and credibility.

His largest leap from long shot to front-runner -- the true turning point for his campaign -- came in mid-July, a brief period that turned out to be a sort of harmonic convergence for the Democrat.

Mr. Clinton made the popular choice of Tennessee Sen. Al Gore for a running mate, presided over a picture-perfect convention that highlighted his small-town roots and his differences with the traditional Democratic Party, and was the unwitting benefactor of Mr. Perot's withdrawal from the race.

"Before the Democratic convention, voters dismissed the guy," says Republican strategist Neil Newhouse, who has conducted focus groups during the campaign season. "He was almost like an afterthought." But following the convention, he says, "It was like a rebirth of the guy, like he'd gone into a cocoon and come out a new and improved Bill Clinton."

The Gallup Poll recorded the largest post-convention bounce in its history, says Larry Hugick, Gallup managing editor. Suddenly, Mr. Clinton was out front.

No one underestimates how major a role Ross Perot played in changing the fortunes of the Democrat. "Had Perot not entered the race when he did, the story would have been, 'Bush continues to lead Clinton' -- and who's to say that wouldn't have continued?" Mr. Hugick says. "Perot seemed to be the catalyst."

Mr. Perot, the maverick billionaire, stirred up the protest vote. And then, when he bowed out of the race, he hand-delivered it to Mr. Clinton, and also helped the Democratic nominee shed some of the character and trust problems that are still dogging him.

"Perot had looked to people like character itself," says Mark Crispin Miller, a media professor at the Johns Hopkins University. "When he bugged out, he made Clinton look like the one with steel in his guts. Clinton had been smeared as Mr. '60s and therefore a man of no character. But the contrast between his stick-to-itiveness and Perot's fickleness strengthened Clinton's image."

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