IT'S late October, and Bill Clinton is far ahead of his Republican opponent. No one - not even the opposition - believes he can lose. But then the GOP mounts a devastating attack, arguing that the Arkansas governor is too liberal, too arrogant, too out of touch with ordinary voters. The other side also makes good use of Clinton's wife, Hillary, portraying her as a feminist threat to mom and apple pie. When the votes are counted, Clinton has narrowly lost.
It sounds like a possible, if unlikely, Nov. 3 scenario. In fact, a similar series of events already happened to Clinton - in 1980, when Republican Frank White ousted him from the Arkansas governor's mansion after one term. This episode is described in The Comeback Kid: The Life and Career of Bill Clinton (Birch Lane Press, 294 pp., $18.95), by Charles Allen and Jonathan Portis, one of a host of instant biographies produced during campaign '92.
If newspapers are the first draft of history, these campaign bios are the second. Like many second drafts, they have a lot of problems: Most of them are badly written, lack an index or footnotes, and are heavily biased in favor of their subject. But for all their manifest faults, campaign books do provide plenty of information to reward the diligent voter. Occasionally, they even offer a truly intriguing anecdote like the story of Clinton's 1980 loss.
Governor Clinton seems to have attracted the lion's share of these campaign bios - no doubt, because many writers are eager to cash in on his startling success. The worst of these books is Clinton: Young Man in a Hurry (Summit Group, 290 pp., $22.95), by Jim Moore and Rick Ihde, who appear all too eager to curry favor with their subject. Their work is redeemed only by its unintended humor, such as this priceless sentence: "Back in Arkansas, an occurrence full of dire portent was unfolding."
Only slightly better is Robert Levin's Bill Clinton: The Inside Story (S.P.I. Books, 342 pp., $5.50 paper), an "oral history" by an unabashed Democratic partisan.
The best Clinton biography on the market is "The Comeback Kid." Based on a dissertation written by Allen at the University of Mississippi, this book is a plodding, but relatively fair, summary of Clinton's life: his birth into a lower-middle-class family, his stepfather's alcoholism and wife-beating, his education at Georgetown University, Oxford University, and Yale Law School, and finally his decade as governor of Arkansas. Unlike the other two books, this account does not try to gloss over Clinton's d raft-dodging or womanizing.
The picture that emerges is of a slightly obnoxious, supremely self-confident, intensely competitive man who has fulfilled his classmates' expectations by running for the White House. His go-getting spirit, while a great help now, landed him in trouble when he became the nation's youngest governor in 1978. The liberal Clinton alienated virtually every constituency in Arkansas by trying to push through a radical reform package.
After the unsuccessful 1980 election, he toned down his style and started attending church, while his wife stopped using her maiden name. Set on an accommodating path, the Clintons have risen effortlessly ever since. But "The Comeback Kid" does leave a big question mark about what Clinton actually intends to accomplish if he wins the Oval Office.
Allen and Portis hint at the fact that Clinton might run into a problem already familiar to George Bush: After you become president, what do you do for an encore? Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt had programs they wanted to enact. Bush and Clinton, these biographers suggest, merely want to have an important job.
Michael Duffy and Dan Goodgame show in Marching in Place: The Status Quo Presidency of George Bush (Simon & Schuster, 316 pp., $23) that the current occupant of the Oval Office has precious few guiding principles - at least in domestic policy. As documented in the book, the Bush administration began in 1989 with the president asking his aides: What can we do to make ourselves look good in the next election?
Such finger-in-the-wind policymaking resulted in the 1990 budget deal, the Civil Rights Act, the Clean Air Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act - political disasters all, in the authors' view. These compromises did not win Bush any points among liberals or independents, and they positively alienated his conservative base. The result: Bush now appears set to lose his bid for reelection, despite what many consider his resounding success in Panama and the Gulf war.
Duffy and Goodgame, both Time magazine correspondents, are reasonably fair to the president. While criticizing his domestic policy, they praise his conduct of foreign affairs. More important, they describe Bush personally as "exceptionally well mannered, modest, restrained, generous, and considerate of others." These qualities are not apparent in even the most flattering descriptions of the president's opponents.
Ross Perot, for one, didn't get where he is today by being Mr. Nice Guy. In Todd Mason's Perot: An Unauthorized Biography (Business One Irwin, 316 pp., $16.95), the prickly Texas billionaire comes across as the candidate most likely to fail the "dinner test" - as in, "Which candidate would you most like to have over to your house for dinner?" One gets the feeling that if Perot came over, he would tell you the living room was badly cleaned, start giving instructions on how to set the table, and then take over the cooking of the meal. The result probably would be a gourmet dinner, but you wouldn't have much affection for the overbearing guest.
Chutzpah has carried Perot a long way in life - from a middle-class upbringing in Texarkana, Texas, to the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and then to Dallas, where he became a top computer salesman at IBM. In 1962, Perot founded Electronic Data Systems (EDS), one of the most successful start-ups in history. By pioneering the use of computers to process insurance and government claims, Perot soon became ultrarich.
But his headstrong style often has landed him in trouble - as when he took over a Wall Street firm in the 1970s or merged EDS with General Motors in the 1980s. Mason, a Business Week reporter, presents an unvarnished account of these dealings - in contrast to the rosy image Perot has usually propagated in the press.
Perot's greatest strength - and his greatest problem - is that he is utterly unable to compromise with anyone, Mason writes. His assertiveness often produces results - for example, when he freed two employees from an Iranian prison in 1980. But in the public-policy arena, Perot's personality has been a major hindrance. His efforts to improve Texas' war on drugs and its school system, Mason asserts, never amounted to much because of his inability to forge coalitions - a prerequisite for success in democra tic politics.
While Perot's running mate, Vice Admiral James Stockdale, has written a book about his experiences as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, no one has penned a biography of him yet. Vice President Dan Quayle, however, makes up for this deficiency by being the subject of two books.
By far the more amusing Quayle bio is Joe Queenan's Imperial Caddy: The Rise of Dan Quayle in America and the Decline and Fall of Practically Everything Else (Hyperion, 232 pp., $22.95). In this fey book, journalist Queenan ruminates on subjects ranging from rock-and-roll Republicans to the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana. "Imperial Caddy" is witty at times, but it ultimately becomes tedious because Queenan fails to reach any clear-cut conclusions about his subject.
That is something David Broder and Bob Woodward could never be accused of. In their book The Man Who Would Be President: Dan Quayle (Simon & Schuster, 207 pp., $18), the ace Washington Post reporters make a compelling case that the vice president isn't nearly as dumb as some people think he is. These reprinted Post articles show that Quayle's rise was due to persistence, charm, and political skills - not to blind luck or family connections. On the other hand, family connections don't hurt.
That certainly has been true, as well, for Sen. Al Gore, whose story is chronicled in Hank Hillin's Al Gore Jr: His Life and Career (Birch Lane Press, 191 pp., $16.95). Hillin, who is the sheriff of Nashville, argues that, while Gore grew up in a Washington, D.C., hotel as the son of a senator, he "`wasn't raised with a silver spoon in his mouth." He also tries, in a rather ham-handed way, to suggest that Gore is supremely qualified to take over the Oval Office. He even quotes Gore's third-grade teacher as saying: "He'll make a fine president."
But nothing in Hillin's badly written work really dispels Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury" caricature of the Democratic vice presidential candidate as "Prince Albert." In the continuing quest among political candidates to claim log-cabin origins, Gore does only slightly better than Bush - and he is far behind his Democratic running mate.
What conclusions, if any, can one draw from a careful reading of the myriad campaign biographies? What struck me is how much fire-in-the-belly is required to win the White House.
Perot's ambivalent attitude - out of the race one month, in the next - is, perhaps, a reflection of the fact that he has been so successful at business that he is reluctant to conquer new worlds.
Similarily, Bush and Gore - both born to privilege, both graduates of prep schools and Ivy League colleges - seem to be devoting less than a 100 percent effort to their presidential ambitions. Gore didn't even try for the top job this year. And while Bush is seeking reelection, he hasn't been showing much energy in his campaign.
Contrast that with Clinton and Quayle, who both went to public schools and who - contrary to some public perceptions - had to work incredibly hard to get where they are today. Not suprisingly, it is these two quintessentially middle-class candidates who seem to have the kind of hussle and dedication needed to win the presidency. Of course only one of them is running for the top job this year.