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Why I Got It Wrong

TT'S confession time for political writers, at least for those willing to suffer the humiliation. Recognizing how wrong I was about George Bush's chances, I'm comforted by the thought that almost all of my colleagues joined in this inability to see what lay ahead.

The lingering and deepening recession messed us all up. Economists, along with leaders in Congress who keep a close eye on economic matters, discussed this subject with reporters at a succession of Monitor press breakfasts as the economy began to falter. Most predicted this would be a relatively slight adjustment that soon would be over.

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These sources of wisdom included Democrats as well as Republicans. They reflected the dominant view at that time. Few, if any, predictions foresaw another economic dip beyond the horizon, followed by a protracted recession that demanded presidential action.

Is it any wonder that the president spoke with assurance of an early end to what he saw as a short-lived downturn? He was later blamed for stirring up false hope. Yet he was acting on the best information he had at hand. That's the truth, despite those experts and politicians who with 20/20 hindsight have lambasted President Bush for not having had a better grasp of the future.

Bush's record-setting popularity in the polls after a sterling performance in the Gulf war caused just about everyone - including potential Democratic candidates - to view him as unbeatable in 1992. We all thought Bush was invincible. That conclusion lingered well beyond the primaries, despite the ever-more-painful bite of a recession that just wouldn't end.

When did I finally become a "believer" in the likelihood of a Bush defeat? By the time of the Democratic convention in July, I would have been a fool if I hadn't had a strong suspicion that the president might be toppled. After all, some polls were showing Gov. Bill Clinton 15 points ahead of Bush (leaving out the third candidate, Ross Perot).

With Mr. Perot included, the polls showed a tight contest, with either Mr. Clinton or Perot slightly ahead of Bush. So I could see the president was a goner unless he somehow turned things around at the GOP convention or later during the campaign.

Most journalists I talked to at the Democratic convention believed Perot was ruining Bush - that his independent candidacy had attracted millions of dissatisfied Republicans and Reagan Democrats.

When Perot surprised everyone by dropping out of the race on the last day of the Democratic convention, many reporters and pundits, and many in the Clinton camp, assumed Bush would reclaim most of the Perot support and regain his advantage. Although they tried to hide it, the Clinton team's leaders and their supporters were gloomy.

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In these circumstances, the first post-convention polls of the brand-new, two-man contest were of utmost importance. Would Bush pick up those Perot backers, or most of them, and thus make it a nip-and-tuck race that he could ultimately win?

There was a slight tightening. But Clinton still showed a strong lead; by Labor Day, his lead was back to 15-20 percentage points. Obviously, those onetime, tepid backers of Bush who had moved to Perot had not "come home" to the president.

That's when it became clear to me that - barring an unexpected event that might turn the election around - the president was in for some very dark days.

Oh yes, I - like a lot of other journalists - didn't anticipate what a magnificent, almost flawless campaign Bill Clinton would run. As a Teflon politician, he makes Ronald Reagan look like a piker. No charge stuck to Clinton, not for long anyway.

Obviously, by election time Bush was still widely perceived as not dealing effectively with our economic problems. And Clinton was able to assure a winning proportion of the electorate that he would bring back better times.

The climate was just right for a Democratic victory. In my opinion, success would have belonged to Bentsen or Cuomo or Rockefeller or Gore, if they had run. But they didn't run because they - like most politicians and journalists - didn't realize the recession would drag on and on.

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