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Clinton's Smooth Ride Faces New Turbulence

CAMPAIGN ROADMAP. A continuing series of articles analyzing the '96 presidential strategies.

June 16, 1996|Robert G. Beckel | Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, served as campaign manager for Walter F. Mondale in 1984

JACKSON HOLE, WY. — Maybe it's the Teton Mountains' air that clears the mind. Or maybe it's reading small-town newspapers and watching small-town television news. Or maybe it was the gracious way Bob Dole left the U.S. Senate last week. Or maybe it has something to do with the latest White House screw-up over FBI files. Probably it's a little of all these things that makes me think that a change in the fortunes of Dole and Bill Clinton is coming soon.

Each presidential race has its own rhythm. Some build slowly to a great finale in the fall. Some start at a torrid pace and die out by the fall. Still others, the interesting ones, have an ebb and flow to them with an unpredictability that can last till election eve. Which of these patterns fits the Clinton-Dole race is not yet clear, but this race is about to give us some clues.

Only a fool would believe that Clinton could maintain a 15-to-20-point lead throughout the race. Even the blowouts of 1984 and 1988 saw the eventual losers tie (as in Walter F. Mondale's case) or lead (as in Michael S. Dukakis's case) the eventual winners at some point. The movements in those races were usually masked by significant events, like a convention or a debate.

Students of the presidential-campaign business know these sudden shifts in the numbers are not reflective of the underlying strengths of the candidate. Mondale may have tied Ronald Reagan during the Democratic National Convention and after their first debate, but the real numbers showed blowout from spring on. In Dukakis' case, his 25-point lead during his convention came while George Bush was under a barrage of criticism from his own party, and the public was weary of eight years of Republican rule. If you look closely at the race, though, Dukakis was still a blank slate that, when painted by the opposition with the right strokes, was a sitting duck.

The Dole-Clinton race has few of these dynamics at work. In fact, this race may look much more like 1992 than anything else. Bush up, then down. Ross Perot in, Clinton down to third. Perot out, Clinton up by 20 points over Bush. Ebbs and flows.

For Clinton, the tide has been rising all spring. For Dole, his fortunes have been on the decline since the New Hampshire primary. The conventional wisdom, even at the White House, is that this pattern will hold until the voters take a hard look at the race after Labor Day. Bunk! The idea that voters pay little attention to presidential campaigns until the fall is a myth and, for front-runners who believe it, extremely dangerous.

The voters know these two men much better than we credit them for. They form opinions about major-party nominees early, then as events unfold, test the soundness of their judgments. This especially happens during fast-breaking events.

On the basis of the voters' continuing gut checks of the state of the economy and national security, Clinton has confirmed their sense that he is handling both jobs well. History tells us that by these measures, particularly the economy, a sitting president should be in a comfortable position. And through the spring, Clinton has indeed reaped the advantages of the voters' apparent comfort.

But recent events, some new and some cumulative, have brought the voters to one of those pauses in an election year when they check their judgments about candidates. If this is one of those moments, Dole is positioned to make a move.

The voters' collective judgment of Dole as an insider and a poor communicator shackled with a Republican Congress has merit. After all, it's true. When Dole attempted to change his image by announcing his retirement, the public wasn't buying. Why should they have? There he was making his announcement, surrounded by Newt Gingrich and his crowd, in the well of the Senate, and although he gave a touching speech, the whole thing appeared a tad contrived. But when he said good-bye, finally, last Tuesday and walked out of the Senate and down the steps, you got the impression that the public was ready to take another look at him.

Then there were the Whitewater verdicts that, standing alone, despite Republican efforts to maximize their impact, didn't dent Clinton that much. But then came the FBI files' story, right in the middle of Clinton's value-laden speaking tour out West.

Do I believe it was a mid-level bureaucratic screw-up? Yes. Do I believe that, if the FBI files "snafu" is considered alone, the public would agree with me? Yes. But do I think that the incident, coupled with Whitewater, coupled with a new look at Dole, coupled with a potential third-party run by former Gov. Richard D. Lamm of Colorado, will cause voters to check their judgments of Clinton again? Yes--and soon.

FBI files have too much history. Reviewing personal files without damn good cause is an affront to Americans' sense of personal liberty. Who ordered them, who reviewed them, why them? Too many interesting avenues for a hungry press and a historically vicious Republican campaign crowd to pass up. And, remember, Republicans perfected the art of using FBI files against their political enemies. Even if there is no sinister motive, they know how to make it appear sinister.

Now come new Whitewater trials and a newly energized--and partisan--special prosecutor. Also comes a truly unshackled Dole who, even his toughest critics would admit, is a man of seemingly good character and who will skillfully exploit the whole thing, while the Republican right-wingers he left behind in Congress will do the dirty work of dragging the whole mess through the mud.*

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