Debate tonight may be Bush's last best chance Face-offs, so far, have not helped

pessimism grows

October 19, 1992|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON -- For George Bush's re-election hopes, there may be no tomorrow.

Tonight's third and final presidential debate could well represent Mr. Bush's last opportunity to revive a candidacy that, for months, has remained stubbornly flat in the polls.

With only two weeks left in the campaign, Bill Clinton is within reach of an electoral landslide, according to the latest state-by-state voter surveys, which largely reflect the Democrat's big lead in the national polls. A CNN-Gallup-USA Today poll of likely voters, completed Saturday night, showed the Democratic nominee maintaining a 13-point advantage over Mr. Bush, with Ross Perot a distant third.

Republican pessimism on the eve of this evening's nationally televised debate appeared to be growing faster than the feeling among Democrats that their party's losing string in presidential politics may be nearing an end.

The Rev. Marion G. "Pat" Robertson, a leading Bush supporter, said publicly the other day what senior Republicans are still saying in private, that it would take a miracle for the president to win re-election.

Even the most upbeat Bush backers acknowledge that voters will have to swallow their disappointment over Mr. Bush's job performance if he is to avoid becoming the first Republican president since Herbert Hoover to lose a re-election contest.

"There are a lot of people that are unhappy with the president, but when they sit down and look at the issues, I think people will move to Bush and I believe he can win it at the finish line," Sen. Phil Gramm, the keynote speaker at this summer's GOP convention, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" yesterday.

Tonight's 90-minute debate on the campus of Michigan State University will feature a hybrid format. The first half is to consist of questions from a single moderator, Jim Lehrer of PBS.

Mr. Lehrer, who moderated the initial debate in St. Louis Oct. 11, will be joined during the second half of the program by three reporters, Helen Thomas of UPI, Gene Gibbons of Reuters and Susan Rook of CNN, who will take turns questioning the candidates.

The unprecedented debate "mini-series" -- four presidential and vice-presidential encounters jammed into a nine-day period -- was a high-stakes gamble by Bush campaign manager James A. Baker III to resuscitate the president's candidacy.

To the surprise of many, the debates have attracted the largest television viewing audience in U.S. political history. But to the Bush campaign's deep disappointment, they've essentially done nothing thus far to raise the president's low standing among the electorate.

Mr. Bush's pollster and campaign chairman, Robert Teeter, said at the time of the first debate that it could take a week to measure the impact on the race. Seven days later, Mr. Bush's standing in the polls was statistically unchanged.

In the weekend CNN-Gallup-USA Today poll Mr. Clinton led Mr. Bush by 47 to 34 percent. A week earlier, the margin was 51-33.

Mr. Clinton's 13-point lead in the poll corresponds to an 18-point Clinton advantage in the latest ABC News poll and a 15-point edge for Mr. Clinton in a Newsweek-Gallup poll taken after Thursday's debate.

The debates have produced a small gain for Mr. Perot, whose support ranges from 12 to 14 percent in the latest surveys.

Mr. Perot's campaign manager, Orson Swindle, said yesterday on CNN that Mr. Bush would need "a major bombshell" in the debate to win re-election.

A Republican campaign strategist, Paul Wilson, said the election may already be out of Mr. Bush's hands, adding that a Bush victory would require a major blunder by Mr. Clinton, which he admitted was a remote prospect.

"Looking for the knockout in the debate is fool's gold," the GOP consultant said.

All three candidates spent most of yesterday out of public sight, rehearsing for their final showdown. Mr. Bush was at the White House, following his return from a day off at Camp David.

In Michigan, Mr. Clinton, who has suffered relatively little political damage from Mr. Bush's attacks on his character, predicted the president would go after him personally again tonight. The Bush campaign is pouring millions of dollars into a TV commercial that sharply questions Mr. Clinton's honesty because of shifting explanations he has given about his attempts to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War.

"He can't run on his record or his own vision for the future, so all he can do is tear me down," Mr. Clinton told reporters after a church service in Detroit. "But I don't think that the American people believe that four more years of that is what we need."

A top Bush campaign official, meantime, was forced to deny on TV that the president has given up hope.

"The president wants very deeply to win," Fred Malek, national campaign manager, said on CNN's "Newsmaker Sunday."

On the same program, Clinton campaign manager David Wilhelm insisted his candidate is "not thinking about a landslide. We are thinking about victory."

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