Despite the substantial lead President Clinton enjoys over presumptive GOP nominee Sen. Bob Dole in current polls, strategists for both sides are looking ahead to the November election as a contest likely to narrow steadily to a point that will be too close to call.
That verdict, they say, stands even though Dole, in all but clinching his party's nomination, has never clearly defined his candidacy. Indeed, at times he has appeared almost painfully unable to do so.
Consider how Dole put his campaign theme in one recent speech in New York: "I would say that if your faucet was leaking this morning when you left home, you'd probably want a plumber with some experience. Experience, I think that's what this is all about."
Even Republican partisans concede that is not a compelling theme.
"The way Bob Dole explains his view of the world is through the legislative process," said GOP strategist Eddie Mahe. But when his advisors told him he couldn't do that anymore because it made him sound too much like a political insider, "it gave him no other way to express himself," Mahe said.
Now that Dole is about to assume a new role as party standard-bearer, Republicans like to think that the 72-year-old Kansan will find it easier to give voters compelling reasons to give him their vote. "He is skeptical of what he considers the cosmetics of politics," said one senior advisor trying to help develop a Dole vision. "He has to be convinced that an agenda of what he wants to do as president is not cosmetics, but content."
In the somewhat jaundiced view of Mike Murphy, until this week the chief strategist for Lamar Alexander's presidential campaign: "Bob Dole, a guy who has a core and has trouble expressing his beliefs, is running against a guy who has no core but can usually fake a vision."
Democrats, of course, would not necessarily accept that characterization, but they do agree the election is likely to be closer than it now seems.
"There's a natural and inevitable tightening that's going to come," said James Carville, who guided Clinton's 1992 march to the White House. "It will get tough, believe me. It always does."
The election percentage breakdown, said a senior White House political aide, "will be 52-48 . . . the only thing I don't know is which way. Ask me in November."
Several circumstances account for this glut of uncertainty. One, obviously, is the set of personal questions that continue to shadow Clinton, such as the Whitewater case. Republicans hope, and Democrats fear, that Clinton will remain vulnerable to continued revelations out of his past.
Even if that does not happen, Clinton still faces a pattern of sharply polarized public opinion in which he is relatively popular in some parts of the country--California, for example--but disliked in other parts, particularly the South.
The degree of contrast in voter responses to Clinton can be seen in some recent polls. In California, a poll for The Times last week found Clinton narrowly ahead in Orange County, the Republican heartland of the state. By contrast, a poll in Texas released Friday found Clinton being beaten by Dole in a hypothetical matchup by a whopping 15 percentage points.
Several nationwide polls show the president with a comfortable lead in a Clinton-Dole race. For example, a March 1-5 NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll gave Clinton a 53%-34% advantage.
But boosting Republican optimism is the belief of many analysts that the Republicans have a much firmer grip on the states that now favor Dole than Clinton does on the states where he currently leads.
The Republican hold seems particularly strong in the South and in most of the Rocky Mountain West, where resentment against Clinton runs deep.
"There is a very intense dislike and disrespect for Clinton" among many white Southerners, said Emory University political scientist Merle Black. "They don't think Clinton is straight with them."
Black points out that these negative feelings go back to the 1992 campaign, when Clinton captured only about one-third of the white vote in the South. Since then, his Southern problem has only grown. Many Southerners regarded Clinton's health care reform proposal as an unwelcome expansion of the federal government, Black said, while his plan for admitting gays into the military offended their sense of patriotism.
Clinton currently seems to have large leads in places such as California, New York and Illinois. But all three of those states have Republican governors and saw GOP gains in the 1994 congressional elections, causing analysts to conclude that they cannot be considered locked up for the president.
Another large block of states remains clearly up for grabs for either party. Those include several populous states in the industrial belt stretching from New Jersey through Pennsylvania to Ohio and Michigan--areas that are almost always closely divided in presidential elections. Several other states seem up for grabs, including Florida, which has been strongly Republican in the past but where Democrats believe they may have an opportunity, in part because the state's large population of retirees has been concerned about Republican proposals to change Medicare.
Those states contain enough electoral votes to sway the election.
Another cause for uncertainty for Republicans and Democrats is the possibility of additional parties on the ballot. Ross Perot has continued to criticize both parties, and even though he says he does not intend to run again, White House and GOP strategists doubt his word. At least some of Patrick J. Buchanan's followers have flirted with an independent bid as well.
Finally, the divided government in Washington blurs the question of who gets the credit, or blame, for the national condition. Normally, when an incumbent president runs, he is the one held responsible. But in this election, polls suggest that the much-ballyhooed "Republican revolution," launched in the wake of the Republicans' takeover of Congress in the 1994 midterm election, could produce a role reversal and put the GOP on the spot.
Republicans will seek to make the president the centerpiece of the election. With three out of five respondents telling pollsters that they think the country is on the wrong track, GOP strategists hope to persuade voters to hold Clinton responsible.
"The formula that voters will use to choose in the general election will be based two-thirds on their assessment of Clinton and one-third on their perception of Dole," Don Sipple, a senior Dole advisor, said hopefully.
"We have to get our congressional guys to remind everyone that Clinton stopped them from doing the things the country voted for in 1994," Murphy said. "We are right on the issues. People want less government and less taxes and want somebody to do something about the breakdown of moral values in the country."
Republicans also hope to make an issue of crime--a staple that their candidates have used successfully in the past.
Already, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and other House Republicans have issued demands that Clinton call for the resignation of one of his appointees, District Judge Harold Baer of New York, who provoked conservative anger by throwing out evidence against alleged drug dealers on grounds it was seized illegally.
The Dole campaign is looking for more examples of such rulings by Clinton appointees. "I hate to use the expression, but this could be our Willie Horton case," said one strategist.
Democrats, however, will be trying just as hard to get the public to focus attention on the Republican Congress. Clinton will continue the stance he has adopted for the last several months, telling voters that he is, in effect, their defense against a Republican Congress that would seek to go too far in cutting popular federal programs.
"Bob Dole's biggest problem is that he has been a leader and architect of the effort by the Republican Congress to cut Medicare and Medicaid and reduce environmental protection," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "He can't run very well on that record."
Some analysts question the effectiveness of that strategy. "When people think of the country, they think of the president, who is one individual, more than they think of an amorphous body, the Congress," said John Petrocik, a political scientist at UCLA and sometime pollster for the GOP.
"Clinton may spend a lot of time running against the Republican Congress, but unless he links Dole to that, he's going to miss his target," Petrocik said.
But Mellman argues that polls show that most voters now believe that it is the Republican Congress, not the Democratic president, who is most in control in Washington.
Democrats also believe that their hand has been strengthened, and Dole's weakened, by Buchanan's appeal to the economic anxieties of working-class and lower-middle-class voters.
"Pat Buchanan doesn't own these voters, but he has raised issues that are important to them," said Stanley B. Greenberg, chief pollster for Clinton's 1992 campaign. "Pat Buchanan has created an opportunity for the Democrats. I don't think the Republicans have a lot to say to these people."
* RELATED STORIES: A3, A14
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Clinton Versus Dole
While the November election is still far off, strategists in both parties already can identify the likely major battlegrounds. Sen. Bob Dole has a virtual lock on 147 electoral votes from the South and Republican-leaning states in the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains. President Clinton has a less-firm grasp on 199 electoral votes from the Northeast, the upper Midwest and the West Coast. In between lie 16 states with 192 electoral votes that most likely will decide the election--mostly in the industrial belt that stretches from New Jersey to the Midwest. 270 electoral votes are needed to be president.
NORTH DAKOTA: 3
SOUTH DAKOTA: 3
NORTH CAROLINA: 14
SOUTH CAROLINA: 8
WEST VIRGINIA: 5
NEW YORK: 33
RHODE ISLAND: 4
NEW MEXICO: 5
NEW JERSEY: 15
NEW HAMPSHIRE: 4