AS the United States election campaign draws to a close, parallels with last spring's British campaign emerge. In Britain, John Major and his Conservatives scored an unexpected victory. British pollsters were left with egg on their faces. President Bush claims he will duplicate Mr. Major's underdog victory this Tuesday. There is some basis for the president's claim; but there are points of difference as well.
First some parallels: In both countries, incumbent administrations - 13 years of Conservative government in Britain and 12 years of Republicans in the White House - faced recessions and voter dissatisfaction. Ross Perot's recent re-entry to the presidential sweepstakes created another common element - a three-way race. British voters, like their American counterparts, had two main choices: Major's Conservatives or Neil Kinnock's Labour Party. Then Paddy Ashdown's Liberal Democrats appeared to play Mr. Pe rot's role of spoiler.
By election eve in Britain, the Labour Party's slim lead narrowed to the point that political pundits predicted a "hung Parliament" with Labour as the largest party, but lacking the majority to form a government. Mr. Ashdown's Liberal Democrats appeared likely to hold the balance of power. Speculation was rife regarding what they would demand from Labour in return for giving Mr. Kinnock the support he would need to form a government.
When Perot showed strength early in the US campaign, questions of a similar type were raised regarding how he might use his Electoral College votes to affect the outcome. His new support suggests the questions again.
As the British campaign developed, Labour stressed the need for change to stimulate the economy, provide jobs, and improve public services. The Conservative campaign seemed to flounder. But as the race entered its final days, Conservatives hammered two themes - trust and taxes. Kinnock, they said, could not be trusted. It was even "revealed" he made a mysterious visit to the Soviet Embassy in London years earlier. According to the Tories, Labour's spending programs would mean higher taxes. They called it
the 2,000 pound ($3,800) "tax bomb" and splashed images of a bomb on billboards everywhere. Major warned British voters that a vote for the Liberal Democrats would produce a Labour-dominated coalition.
THE Clinton-Gore ticket's emphasis on stimulating the economy and improving health care and education through public-sector action is reminiscent of Labour's themes. The Bush campaign also is using trust and taxes in its recent ads. Will we hear Bush say a vote for Perot is a vote for Clinton? Are the parallels due to happenstance? Probably not. Are they due to politicians and advisers responding independently to similar conditions? To some degree. But direct learning also plays a role. National candidat es are well aware what does and doesn't work elsewhere. This is easier for American and British politicians given their trans-Atlantic contacts and a shared language. They visit one another and compare notes. One of the companies doing ads for the British Conservatives is working for the Bush campaign.
Bill Clinton and his advisers may have learned from Kinnock's experience not to let opponents' charges go unchallenged. Have they avoided the risk of appearing overconfident? Kinnock was criticized for a media "victory rally" a week before polling day.
Will Bush sweep to office as the ultimate "comeback kid"? There are differences: British voters were electing a House of Commons, not voting directly on prime ministerial candidates. Despite the increasing personalization of British campaigns, voters' judgments of party policies matter more than in presidential elections here. Secondly, Clinton's lead over Bush in the polls one week before election day was bigger than Kinnock's.
Still, the inaccuracy of British polls leaves doubt about the accuracy of our own. Polling groups use similar techniques on both sides of the Atlantic. A 1 or 2 percent Labour lead became a 7 percent Conservative lead when the ballots were counted. Pollsters in Britain have yet to reveal why.
When I went to bed in London on April 10, I expected to wake to find that no party had won. Breakfast brought a Conservative victory. What will breakfast Wednesday bring?