Clinton remains clearly in lead in voter surveys Perot could alter balance Tuesday in several states

November 01, 1992|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON SS CAMPAIGN '92 — WASHINGTON -- Two days before the election, Bill Clinton i clinging to a clear edge over George Bush in the presidential contest.

The Democrat holds a lopsided advantage in the all-important competition for electoral votes and leads among likely voters by between 3 and 8 percentage points, according to the latest polls.

Independent Ross Perot, though given no chance of winning, remains the candidate with the greatest potential to change the dynamics of the race. The results in several states on Tuesday could well turn on whether his backers stick with the Texas billionaire or whether they shift their allegiance to another candidate if they conclude he cannot win.

As the campaign entered its closing hours, undecided voters -- some of them former Perot supporters -- appeared to be moving more toward Mr. Bush than Mr. Clinton.

But Mr. Bush's progress may have been slowed, or even stopped, by new doubts about his previous accounts about his role in the arms-for-hostages trade with Iran. The 6-year-old issue threatened to dominate the news of the final weekend of the campaign and undercut the president's relentless effort to plant doubts about Mr. Clinton's honesty and integrity.

As Mr. Bush set out on a daylong train trip across Wisconsin yesterday, a light plane circled overhead with a banner reading: "Iran-contra haunts you." The president plans to campaign today in the must-win states of Michigan, New Jersey and Connecticut.

The Clinton forces tried to turn the character issue against Mr. Bush, as the Democratic candidate launched an exhausting weekend swing that included Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and New Jersey, all of them rated tossup states, with the exception of Pennsylvania, where Mr. Clinton is thought to be ahead.

The Arkansas governor avoided direct comment on a newly released memo, written in 1986 by then-Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, about the Iranian arms deal.

But Mr. Clinton's running mate, Sen. Al Gore, said it showed that Mr. Bush's claim that he was "out of the loop" on the arms swap was "untrue."

Mr. Perot, who was staging weekend rallies in Florida, Missouri and California, delivered a scathing attack on Mr. Bush and the president's description of him as "crazy" for having raised questions about Republican campaign tactics. The independent candidate also aired radio and TV commercials promoting a 30-minute "infomercial" tonight in which he will blast Mr. Clinton as well as Mr. Bush, according to his son, Ross Perot Jr.

Mirror image of 1980

Despite polls showing the race tightening in the closing days, analysts in both parties say a Bush re-election victory appears unlikely, though not impossible. At this stage, it would require the political equivalent of drawing to an inside straight in poker. For example, the president would have to carry most or all of the 11 states currently rated as tossups, as well as several others now rated as leaning toward Mr. Clinton.

"There is still a possibility he could close the gap," said Linda DiVall, a Republican poll-taker.

Independent pollster Andrew Kohut, who has been tracking voter opinions toward the candidates on a nightly basis for Times Mirror Co., publisher of The Sun and other newspapers, said that there had been "little net change" in attitudes toward Mr. Clinton or Mr. Bush and that "something disproportionate" would have to happen to give Mr. Bush a victory.

Charles Black, a senior Bush campaign adviser, acknowledged Friday that the president was still running behind in the race for the 270 electoral votes needed to win. The veteran Republican strategist said that he counted 20 states in the tossup category and that Mr. Bush would have to win most of them to eke out a election upset.

But Democrats and many independent analysts said the president's task was even tougher than that.

"This is the mirror image of the situation we were in in 1980," recalled Les Francis, a Democratic campaign official and a veteran of President Jimmy Carter's unsuccessful re-election try.

Going into the final weekend of the 1980 campaign, polls showed the race almost even. "Everything had to break our way in the key states all at once for us to get to 270" electoral votes, he said. Instead, after hopes were --ed for the release of U.S. hostages in Iran, most late-deciding voters went with challenger Ronald Reagan, and Mr. Carter wound up losing 40 states.

The Perot factor

Like the 1980 race, in which independent John B. Anderson siphoned off almost 7 percent of the vote from the two major parties, the presence of a third man, Mr. Perot, has added an unpredictable factor to this fall's election.

Support for the Texas billionaire has fallen in the aftermath of his unsubstantiated charges of dirty tricks against the Republicans. The Times Mirror survey found that increasingly negative opinions of Mr. Perot were the only major change in the race last week.

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