President's backers hope Clinton, Perot will dilute large anti-incumbent vote
THE Bush campaign team is hoping that a late surge of support in key states will finally help the president overwhelm front-running Democrat Bill Clinton.
"Voters are not firmly committed," says Charles Black, a top strategist for President Bush. "Barely more than 50 percent have firmly made up their minds."
Yet Republican brows are furrowed as the election clock ticks rapidly toward Nov. 3. Daily tracking polls, both public and private, show Governor Clinton maintaining a wide margin over the president.
Mr. Black and other members of the Bush team see at least three ways to rescue the endangered Bush White House:
* Televised debates. Agreement over the weekend on four debates from Oct. 11 to Oct. 19, three presidential and one vice-presidential, opens a new opportunity for Bush. Expect the president, as underdog, to go on the attack.
* Ross Perot. The Texas billionaire, who is buying more than $1 million in prime-time network TV this week, adds another wild card to this race. Mr. Perot could divide the "anti-Bush" vote, and help the president slip back into office with only a plurality.
* Campaign advertising. Bush is flooding the airwaves with millions of dollars worth of TV ads, many attacking Governor Clinton personally on issues like his draft record. The impact could show up in the polls within 10 days, Bush strategists say.
Despite Clinton's double-digit lead, it is not too late for a Bush victory, particularly if he can create deep fears about the Arkansas governor, Black says.
To that end, at least two-thirds of Bush's advertising budget, estimated at $35 million to $40 million, will be used for strongly negative and anti-Clinton ads, Republican sources say.
Yet the gloom among some Republicans is palpable, including party operatives here in the capital. One says grimly:
"The prospects are not very good. The pendulum is swinging [away from the GOP] and it's being pushed by the economy. Too many people are too upset by George Bush."
Even Mr. Perot's entry into the race is viewed darkly by some Republican insiders.
They would prefer Perot out, thereby giving Bush a clear shot at Clinton in the final 29 days of this race.
A Republican insider confides: "If Perot's in the debates, it muddies the water. It's no longer man against man. It's man against man against man. It changes everything."