In Bush camp, debate poll changes cheers into fears


October 21, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

LANSING, Mich. -- I once knew a man who had worked in the Chicago stockyards in the days when cows were slaughtered by hitting them over their heads with large wooden mallets.

"After you hit 'em, they'd get this look on their faces like 'Who me?' " he said, "and then they'd go down in a heap."

On the morning after the final presidential debate, as I got off the elevator in the Radisson Hotel lobby and saw George Bush's campaign aides assembled there, I finally understood that look.

It is not as if their man had done badly. On the contrary. He had displayed energy, enthusiasm and fighting spirit. All the things, in other words, that he lacked in the previous debates.

Personally, I thought George Bush won the thing. And so did his people. Even before the debate was over.

With 12 minutes still left in the broadcast, Bush's campaign team charged down to Spin Alley, that area of the press room where partisans give their version of events to reporters.

And were they excited? Were they happy? Hey. These guys were chewing nails and spitting out tacks.

"He hit a home run tonight! He was more aggressive tonight!" Marlin Fitzwater, the White House spokesman, crowed. "And now the president has a chance in the next two weeks to turn this thing around!"

Shouldn't Bush have done this earlier? I asked him. Shouldn't Bush have come out swinging from the very first debate?

Fitzwater shook his head. "No, no," he said as if this had all been part of some grand plan. "We're going to peak just before Election Day. And then we're going to win."

Then Fitzwater grinned a huge grin.

And the Bush people finally had something to grin about. You think it was easy after the first two presidential debates for them to come into Spin Alley and say their guy had won when they knew he had not? You think it was easy for them to watch the sarcastic smirks of the reporters as they slogged through their upbeat analyses?

But now, finally, the president had come alive and his troops could spin their spin and actually mean it.

"We've been lagging behind. You know it; I know it," Rich Bond, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said. "But now I really, really think George Bush can overcome Bill Clinton's lead. I really do think George Bush won tonight. And I pray the polls show that."

And polls are definitely worth praying for. When you are in a political campaign you can pray for world peace and a cure for cancer after Election Day. Before then, you pray for good polls.

But a few yards away from Bond, encircled by his own group of reporters, stood James Carville, Bill Clinton's chief strategist. For a good half-hour or so, Carville had to fend off questions as to whether his boss had lost the debate.

Then someone stuck a fragment of paper in Carville's hand. And it was his turn to grin.

"Just got the ABC poll," Carville said. "Clinton 36, Perot 26, Bush 21. So there. So now ask me who won. Go ahead. Ask me now."

And that was that. As the evening progressed, the other poll results were announced. Four networks, questioning a tiny number of people, had revealed the Ultimate Truth as determined by Mathematical Science: George Bush had lost. Big time.

And the next morning, it showed in the faces of his campaign staff. It was no longer disappointment or confusion or even anger that showed. It was fear.

Because if you do that well in a debate and the polls still show you losing, it can only mean one thing:

The public is not listening to you. The public has tuned you out.

And if that is true, all the barnstorming and speeches and TV commercials will not change a thing.

Unless . . . unless, the polls are wrong. Which they have been before.

Unless American voters ask themselves: How would I feel if there were no polls? Would I really feel this election were over? Or would I feel that each of these guys still has a message worth considering?

George Bush hopes there are still some minds out there that are not made up.

That hope is all he really has.

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