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Clinton's Lead Sags Under Two-Way Assault

Optimism blooms among Bush aides as he lashes rivals

GEORGE BUSH rushes into the final eight days of the presidential marathon with renewed hope that events in this turbulent political year are finally breaking his way.

Although the president still trails Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, the election has taken on a new air of uncertainty.

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Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire who spent $26.4 million for his independent campaign in the first two weeks of October, is chewing away at support for both President Bush and Governor Clinton.

Charles Black, a senior Bush campaign aide, says that, during the past few days, internal Republican Party polls show the race tightening dramatically.

"Clinton has dropped from about 50 toward 40, and we have the president back up to a 6 or 7 point difference," Mr. Black says.

"Perot is up to about 20, and could make a big difference in some states."

Polls confirm Mr. Black's assessment. The latest CBS/New York Times survey gives Clinton only a 5 percent lead over Bush, 40 to 35. A Time/CNN poll has Clinton ahead 38 to 31, and the Washington Post has Clinton at 42 percent, Bush at 34. In all the polls, Perot gets between 15 and 22 percent.

While some pundits still predict a Clinton landslide, Black says the race has narrowed to "a single digit difference in every state we need to win. If the trend we've seen the last few nights continues, it is going to end in a dead heat."

David Chagall, a California political analyst, concurs with Black's assessment and predicts Bush could still win.

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On the campaign trail, Bush has begun bashing Perot nearly as hard as Clinton. He charges that the Texan, for example, has "some nutty ideas" and has made "crazy statements."

Yet there are Republicans who think Perot could ultimately help Bush.

One of those is Richard Wirthlin, a GOP pollster who worked for President Reagan. His surveys show that at levels of support between 7 percent and 15 percent, Perot hurts Bush.

But as Perot rises above 15 percent, he begins gobbling Clinton voters in places like California, Iowa, and Ohio.

Bush partisans say Perot's impact won't be enough to defeat Clinton, however. Craig Shirley, a conservative GOP political consultant, says the key to victory lies in weakening voter confidence in the Arkansas governor.

Mr. Shirley says bluntly: "Is Bush behind? Yes. Would he lose today? Yes. But the election is still days away. I do believe there is a cloud of doubt, and it is growing, around Bill Clinton. There are doubts that he has the character to sit in the Oval Office."

Shirley observes that voters, unlike pundits, aren't quick to write off an incumbent president.

"Voters take this election more seriously than we realize, and that is why there is hope for Bush," he says. "They know the economy is in trouble. Yet they also know Bush is a decent man. But is Clinton?"

Political scientist Merle Black at Emory University in Atlanta agrees that Bush's main hope is giving voters a dark view of Clinton's character. As Dr. Black puts it: "It's down to making a case against Bill Clinton that would be such a chamber of horrors that Americans would cast reluctant votes for George Bush."

The strategy of attacking Clinton's character - his draft record, his alleged infidelity and lying - already was tried in the Democratic primaries.

It didn't work then, and it may be a dead-end street now for the Bush campaign.

Democratic pollster Peter Hart argues that the character issue may even be moving the other way for Bush. Mr. Hart's most recent poll, conducted with Republican Vince Breglio for NBC and the Wall Street Journal, shows Clinton rapidly gaining on Bush on the "trust" question.

When voters were asked last April which candidate is "honest, a person you can trust," Bush held a 68 percent to 33 percent lead over Clinton.

Today that margin has fallen to only 57 to 53.

The character issue could resurface this week, however, as the December edition of Penthouse magazine reaches newsstands on Tuesday. Gennifer Flowers, a former Arkansas TV reporter and cabaret singer, expands on her accusations that she had a 12-year extramarital affair with Clinton, beginning in the 1970s. During the Democratic primaries, Ms. Flowers nearly derailed Clinton's campaign when she first charged that Clinton had a sexual relationship with her.

But, while admitting he knew Flowers, Clinton denied her accusations.

Before publishing the latest charges, the magazine attempted to find evidence verifying the charges, "often without success," according to a statement released by the publisher.

Even so, analyst Chagall says the Flowers article could bring further tightening of the race, possibly by pushing some Clinton voters over to Perot.

"This could be a very interesting last week," Mr. Chagall says.

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