HOUSTON — Republican campaign strategists are pinning their hopes for victory on President Bush making a strong showing in five major industrial states where he will charge that if Bill Clinton takes over the Oval Office, the Democrat will make the ailing economy worse.
"We're going to say that he would be disastrous because of the tax implications of his program and what it would mean for the deficit," said Bush pollster Fred Steeper.
He was referring to Clinton's economic program calling for $150 billion in tax increases over four years, which Republicans contend will really cost $500 billion, as well as his plan for about $200 billion in new federal spending over that time.
The GOP target states--stretching from New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the Northeast to Ohio, Michigan and Illinois in the Midwest--have a combined total of 99 electoral votes; 270 are needed to win. Republicans figure that they need to capture at least three of the five to make up for the expected loss of California and for likely Democratic inroads in the South--reliable Republican bulwarks in the past. California, with its 54 electoral votes, constitutes a full 20% of the 270-vote majority.
Although all five target states have troubled economies, Bush has some weapons. Ohio, with 21 electoral votes, Illinois, with 22, and Michigan, with 18, all have Republican governors who can be counted on to help with the organization so vital in a close contest.
As for the two states with Democratic governors, Republican strategists consider New Jersey's James J. Florio more of a liability than an asset to Clinton's efforts to win the state's 15 electoral votes, because of public outrage over tax hikes imposed by his Administration.
And in Pennsylvania, with its 23 electoral votes, Gov. Robert P. Casey is unpopular because he, too, has raised taxes. In any event, his relations with Clinton are strained over abortion, which Casey passionately opposes; Clinton supports abortion rights.
All five states have substantial Roman Catholic populations, which Bush advisers view as a potentially rich base of support because of their affinity for the more conservative approach to what Bush campaign Chairman Robert M. Teeter calls "fundamental social values."
Catholics "have been an important part of the Reagan/Bush coalition and they are very important to us this year," Teeter said.
At least as important, Bush strategists believe that they can use economic issues against Clinton. In addition to warning of Clinton's reversion to what they call the Democratic "tax and spend" tradition, Bush will contend that Clinton's plan to reduce defense spending more than Bush would cost the country another million jobs. The GOP expects that to be especially persuasive to voters in these manufacturing states, already hard hit by unemployment.
On top of that, Bush will charge Clinton with what senior campaign adviser Charles Black calls "environmental extremism"--an accusation already leveled against Clinton's running mate, Tennessee Sen. Al Gore. The GOP will argue that the Democrats' call for tough fuel standards for autos would cost "thousands of jobs" in the industry, which is particularly important in Michigan and Ohio.
Even so, none of these five states offer easy pickings for the Republicans. The Democrats' 1988 nominee, Michael S. Dukakis, came close to winning both Michigan and Pennsylvania. And recent polls have shown Bush trailing Clinton in four of the states and tied in one--Ohio.
In 1988, Dukakis carried only 10 states and the District of Columbia, earning 112 electoral votes; Bush carried 40 states and racked up 426 electoral votes.
But at this point in the 1992 campaign, according to state polls taken after the Democratic Convention, Bush leads Clinton in only two states: Utah, with five electoral votes, and Idaho, with four. This lopsided situation reflects the lead of about 20 points that Clinton enjoyed at the onset of the Republican Convention that began here Monday.
Republican strategic planning for the fall has been based on the assumption that their convention, which concluded Thursday night, would narrow the gap and allow them to reclaim their traditional base in the Rocky Mountain West and the Great Plains as well as in much of the South.
Noting that Republican fortunes were at low tide as the convention began, Bush campaign manager Frederic V. Malek told reporters: "I think what happens is that as the level of water rises--that is, as the polls become closer--many of the Southern states and the Rocky Mountain states will come back into our court." That would free the campaign to focus its resources on the battleground states in the Midwest and Northeast, he said.
In fact, there was an indication that this trend was under way even before the President's climactic acceptance speech. Four new surveys taken since the start of the convention showed Bush gaining.