Now, Perot is making Bush, Clinton nervous ON POLITICS



BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- This is the season of uneasiness among Democrats. New opinion polls show Ross Perot's support moving up close to 20 percent, in some cases at the expense of Bill Clinton. The latest CNN tracking poll, for example, has Clinton at 44 percent to 32 percent for President Bush and 17 percent for Perot -- a lead of 12 points where it had been as high as 15 to 17 points a week or so ago.

If the Clinton managers had been told a year ago the Democratic nominee would be 12 points ahead with less than two weeks left in the campaign, they wouldn't have believed it. But now things have been going so well, they cannot help but feel a little queasiness at even a small decline. They remember how the lead of another challenger, Jimmy Carter in 1976, melted away late in the campaign.

In fact, the Bush campaign is the one with the genuine reason for concern at the new poll figures because what they show is that the president's support seems to be frozen in the 30 percent to 35 percent range, meaning that he is getting the backing of the Republican base and almost no one else. The fact that he has scheduled himself into Alabama this weekend is revealing because this is a state that Bush carried with 59 percent of the vote four years ago. His railroad trip through Georgia and the Carolinas was more of the same -- the president trying to firm up a base that should never have been a cause of concern.

The strategy of putting Bush into friendly territory seems to have two goals. The first, of course, is to produce pictures on the television networks every night of adoring crowds whose enthusiasm would seem to belie the bad news in the opinion polls. The second apparently is to bring those states back into his column so the projections of electoral vote counts won't be so damning.

At the moment, the president appears to be ahead or essentially even in only 15 states with 121 electoral votes -- Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming.

To reach the necessary 270 Bush first needs to recapture five Southern states with 70 electoral votes that are now very much in doubt -- Florida, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina and Louisiana.

Then the imperative becomes what it always has been -- a turnaround in the industrial belt running from New Jersey west through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin. But Pennsylvania and Illinois appear to be hopeless cases for Bush with Clinton leading in each by close to 20 percent. So Bush would have to win all four of the other states in this group to get even close enough to 270 so that a reversal of fortunes in a couple of other small states, New Hampshire and Maine perhaps, would do the trick.

It is a tall order and one that the president cannot fill simply by attacking the polls and the pundits from the observation platform of a whistle-stop train. He seems to think that if he compares himself often enough to Harry Truman, the voters will begin to believe it.

But Bush also has begun taking on Perot by warning voters not to waste their franchise on someone who cannot win -- a new tactic that suggests the Bush people's own polling data is telling them Perot is doing them more harm than the raw figures would suggest.

The conventional wisdom among polling experts earlier in the year held that Perot's hard core of support -- less than 10 percent -- would be made up largely of voters who otherwise would have supported Bush, but that a Perot vote between 10 percent and 20 percent would take something from both Bush and Clinton, the higher it gets the more from Clinton. Those estimates seem to be borne out by the most recent figures at least to the degree that Clinton's huge lead becomes less huge as Perot attracts more support.

The bottom line, then, is that Perot's candidacy -- and particularly his performance in the third debate -- is almost as much a factor as it appeared before he dropped out last July. That is making the Clinton supporters uneasy, but the figures suggest it is Bush who is the one with cause for serious concern. It is still going to take a political miracle for the president to be re-elected.

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