Once again, Bush fails to score a breakthrough ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

October 20, 1992|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- The presidential debates of 1992 are now history and the bottom line is that they have done nothing to change the basic nature of the campaign. President Bush came into the nine-day debate period lagging far behind Democrat Bill Clinton and came away without anything to change the dynamics of the campaign.

Once he fell dangerously behind, the president has been following a strategy with two principal elements. The first was to convince voters he has a realistic and coherent plan for dealing with the economy and other domestic concerns in a second term. If the polls are to be believed, that objective clearly has not been achieved.

The second purpose was to raise questions about Clinton's fitness for the Oval Office -- that is, to play on the "risk factor" that is an element in any campaign in which voters are being asked to take the chance with a newcomer against an incumbent president.

Using this approach, Bush has had mixed success. The polls have found that he has raised Clinton's negatives slightly, clearly by raising doubts about whether he could be trusted and about whether he might be just another "tax and spend Democrat" in the mold of Walter F. Mondale and Michael S. Dukakis. But the problem for the president is that his own negatives have risen even higher, suggesting perhaps that voters resent the use of what they see as a repetition of the harsh campaign of 1988.

In the final debate, Bush used both lines of attack. He referred repeatedly to the economic distress of the years in which the last Democrat, Jimmy Carter, occupied the White House. And he spoke even more often of what he calls a "pattern" of contradictory statements by Clinton on issues as diverse as his draft history and his support for the North American Free Trade Agreement.

But Bush was violating the conventional political wisdom in both cases. Most professionals doubt that going back 12 years to try to hang Carter is much more relevant than Democrats trying to depict Bush as another Herbert Hoover. And it is axiomatic among political managers that negative attacks are credible only when they are made by candidates with strong positives of their own, something Bush clearly lacks.

But if the debates failed to fulfill the president's hopes, they clearly did perform that function for the Democratic challenger. For the youthful Arkansas governor, the key was the opportunity to appear before huge audiences -- far greater than those that have watched debates in the past -- and thus increase what politicians call "the comfort factor"-- meaning the level of comfort voters feel at the prospect of this new man in the White House.

By the final debate last night, Clinton was in a particularly advantageous position simply because Bush had scored no breakthroughs in the first two. As a result, challenger Clinton was behaving as if he were the incumbent, even to the point of being almost condescending and patronizing in his references to Bush's conduct of the Persian Gulf war and to the "honor" of Bush's military service.

Clinton also realized a political gain of some unknown dimension by the continuing strong performance of independent Ross Perot, whom instant polls showed running a strong second to Clinton in the last two debates. Perot's support had been running between 10 and 15 percent in the national surveys, not enough to make him a serious factor Nov. 3 and a level that suggests his final vote may be under 10 percent as more voters decide they don't want to waste their votes.

But Perot's hard core of supporters, several studies have shown, are more likely to come out of Bush's hide than Clinton's in such key and closely contested states as Texas and Florida, both of which Bush must win to have any chance of reaching the necessary 270 electoral votes.

Bush still has two weeks to find that magic bullet to turn the campaign around. The president is further behind at this point than any successful presidential candidate has been at this stage in the campaign in the years in which opinion polls have been reasonably reliable. And Bush is never going to have the same opportunity to seize the national attention.

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