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Pattern of British Labour Party's surprise defeat could hold lessons for Bush and Clinton campaigns

THE British are debating whether there are instructive parallels to be drawn between the American presidential campaign and their own general election last April.

Some senior figures in Britain's opposition Labour Party, after being trounced by Prime Minister John Major's Conservatives, dropped in on the Democratic nominating convention in New York City. The group included Gordon Brown, the party's economic spokesman.

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The liberal Britons decided that comparisons of the two political situations indeed can be made.

They were struck by the way the Democrats canvassed familiar themes - a languishing economy, deprived inner cities, health care problems - and by the comparable states of the Democratic and Labour parties.

Before the April vote, Labour was running well ahead of the Conservatives, just as the Democrats are now. After the Thatcher years, the ruling party appeared to have run out of steam.

"Early in the British campaign there was a widespread feeling that it was time for a change," says a member of the Labour team that traveled to New York. "But on voting day not enough people believed we had the ability to improve their lives.

"Despite George Bush's dismal ratings today, Bill Clinton and the Democrats could find the same pattern working against them," the party leader says.

The key to the outcome, according to another analysis, will be whether Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton are able to swing the United States electorate into an up-beat mood.

Cheryl Schonhardt-Bailey, an American political scientist at the London School of Economics who has observed British politics for the past three years, speaks of an "underlying economic optimism in the US which does not seem to exist here."

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"I doubt whether the Democrats will be as vulnerable as Labour was on economic questions," Dr. Schonhardt-Bailey says. "Where Governor Clinton could lose ground is in his approach to the general malaise the US is suffering from. If he can persuade voters that he will be able to grapple with urban issues - including the drug problem - he may hold his lead. If not, he may suffer the same fate as Labour's Neil Kinnock."

Peter Riddell, a British commentator who has followed the politics of both countries for 20 years, thinks that if comparisons are to be made between April in Britain and November in the US, the factor to focus on is the convictions of the leaders. Here he thinks Mr. Bush may be in trouble.

Mr. Riddell wrote in the London Times: "Whereas Mr. Major was able to look fresh last April, Mr. Bush looks stale. Mr. Major was able to distance himself from the more unpopular aspects of the Thatcher years, while presenting himself as head of a new government. But Mr. Bush has looked like the tail end of an old government."

The president's fate, Riddell concluded, would depend on "whether he still wants to win and can convey an impression of what he would do with victory."

Schonhardt-Bailey considers that Labour's failure to impress voters with its ability to produce change has its echo in both the Bush and Clinton campaigns thus far.

"Labour failed to put a stamp of authority on its promises. If there is a lesson to be learned, it is that both presidential candidates will have to be much more explicit about their visions and their objectives," she says.

"People will want to know what their detailed agenda is before they vote for either of them."

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