With the feud between his two political counterparts escalating at every turn, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton took his caravan of buses on the high road Monday. But he kept a sharp eye on the rearview mirror for the specter of Ross Perot.
Accompanied by his running mate, Tennessee Sen. Al Gore, the Democratic presidential nominee led the eighth bus tour of his campaign, this one across North Carolina, and along the way tried to distance himself from the two men currently chasing him for the presidency.
All told, Monday represented the prototype of Clinton's campaign. Besides spending most of his time on a bus, he began in the familiar confines of an early morning network news show where he acknowledged that Perot has cut into his share of the vote.
Clinton refused to say--when asked by Harry Smith of CBS "Morning News"--whether a vote for Perot would be "wasted." But he suggested as much.
"I don't think I should tell the American people that," Clinton said, then proceeded to add: "If they want to replace George Bush, they have one practical alternative. I've got a chance to be President."
Perot's appearance at a press briefing Monday morning to answer more questions about his allegations of Republican dirty tricks appeared to end a debate within Clinton's campaign over how to handle Perot. Many of the campaign's state directors, fearful of Perot's growing numbers, had been urging a more direct assault on the Texas independent.
But campaign strategists, and Clinton himself, were resistant to the idea of getting into a fight with Perot, fearing they would turn off the Perot supporters they hoped to win over.
By midmorning Monday, however, those fears began to abate. "I think we've seen the end of the Perot surge," Clinton pollster Stanley Greenberg said in Little Rock.
On the morning news program broadcast live from Winston-Salem, Clinton said the President "hopes that the anti-Bush vote will be divided and he can sneak right up the middle."
Clinton's foray into live television brought not only questioning from Smith but from residents gathered in a town hall setting. One woman sought to divine his connection to real people by quizzing him on the cost of real-world items.
Debbie Gilbert, the mother of two boys and a part-time employee at a local hospital, said her exercise was prompted by a lack of confidence in politicians.
"I don't believe that politicians know what it's like to be in the shoes of the average American family," she said on the program. "I want to know if you know how much it costs to buy a pound of hamburger, a pair of blue jeans, a tank of gas and a visit to the doctor's office?"
Without pausing, Clinton weighed in like a contestant on "The Price is Right:"
"Gasoline is about a $1.20, hamburger meat is a little over a dollar. A gallon of milk is two dollars. A loaf of bread is about a dollar," Clinton said, adding that a doctor's visit differed from area to area.
"Blue jeans run you anywhere from $18 to $50, depending on what kind you get," he said.
Gilbert's verdict: "Pretty good." He was off a bit, she said later, on the cost of hamburger.
Cutting to the gist of Gilbert's concern, Clinton vowed to be a President with a common touch.
"We want to do some bus trips and these town meetings if we win the election on Nov. 3," Clinton said. "We want to keep doing things like this because it is so easy for a President to get out of touch. Even somebody who has good intentions can get out of touch."
After filming the morning show, Clinton ventured across North Carolina, stopping here and there to greet clots of schoolchildren and college students, and holding formal rallies in Durham and Wilson.
Before those audiences, he soft-pedaled his concerns about Perot, offering instead a quick swipe at Bush and a rendition of the sorts of changes he hopes to bring to the presidency if he prevails on Nov. 3.
Clinton pledged to increase college loan programs, restructure the budget, institute national health care and, plainly, to use the levers of government more actively than has Bush.
Most of the day the tour was a testament to Clinton's current popularity. But he was greeted by protesters in many places. A host of Bush supporters crowded onto the lawn at Elon College near Greensboro, for example, where they booed his remarks.
But mostly Clinton found the sort of adulatory response one would imagine from people who waited hours for his arrival.
The entourage pulled into tiny Graham, N.C., to find a few thousand people gaping at the 15 full-size buses and another 13 Secret Service vehicles, state trooper cars and an ambulance, which regularly follows candidates' motorcades. There, as he has continuously for several days, Clinton belittled the current contretemps between Bush and Perot.
"Mr. Perot and Mr. Bush have spent a lot of time accusing one another of investigating each other's children," he said. "I have spent my life investigating what's going to happen to your children and their future and that's what I think this election oughta be about."
Clinton also continued to jab Bush for the Administration's recently acknowledged effort to scan the Democrat's passport files and those of his mother, Virginia Kelley.
"Don't worry about mother," he said sarcastically, "she's handled tougher people than Mr. Bush."
But, he added in the mournful tone he regularly adopts to chide Bush, "I like to think that this country's come to a sorry pass when political appointees go in dark rooms and look into the files of people like my mother."
Every day, and it was so on the bus trip Monday, Clinton and his aides count down the days before the election with a mixture of glee and relief. Audiences at his larger rallies have also taken to taunting Bush supporters with chanting renditions of the political realities: "Eight more days! Eight more days" they yelled at Elon College on Monday.
Clinton continually cites the time line as both a device to rev up his audiences and a warning that time is short to convince voters to come his way.
"In eight days, you're going to have to make a choice that will shape the future of this country for a generation," he said in Graham. Twice in that same brief speech, he asked voters to vote for "new ideas--not more government but better government that works for all the people."
But judging from the questions raised by Winston-Salem residents present at the CBS morning news show, there remains skepticism that Clinton can accomplish his goals without increasing taxes on the middle class.
As he has in the past, Clinton refused to say that he would not raise taxes on the middle class.
"I don't want to get into the same boat Mr. Bush did four years ago," said Clinton, referring to the President's later-revoked "Read My Lips" pledge.
"I don't want to and I won't raise taxes on Americans to pay for the new spending I've proposed. I won't do that. If we don't raise the money we think, then we will scale back spending. We won't raise middle-class taxes to pay for those programs."
Clinton declined to specify which incomes qualify, in his mind, as the middle class.
Times staff writer David Lauter contributed to this story from Little Rock.