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Bush Campaign Gambits Fail

By Karen Hosler
The Baltimore Sun

President Bush's comeback campaign is advancing at a crawl as its various political themes and gambits fail to register with most voters.

Following a week in which Bush offered a major repackaging of his economic proposals and Democrat Bill Clinton took a new round of pounding on his military draft record, there has been little measurable impact among the electorate, new public opinion surveys show.

Highly publicized government giveaways to key voter groups foreign arms sales for defense plants, subsidies for farmers, accelerated logging schedules for timber-cutters, massive aid for hurricane-stricken South Florida also has done little or nothing to help the president close the gap with his challenger.

"The Bush campaign just isn't getting anywhere on the two major things it has to accomplish: to raise doubts about Clinton and convince Americans there is at least some chance that a second Bush administration will be better than the first," said Andrew Kohut, pollster for the Times-Mirror Center for The People and the Press.

Voter surveys released this week show the challenger's lead ranging from 9 percent, in a CNN-Gallup poll Thursday, to 15 percent in a Times-Mirror poll taken last weekend. Although that range represents a substantial improvement from Clinton's 2-1 lead following his nomination in July, it hasn't changed much for several weeks.

With the time for overcoming Clinton's lead shrinking, Bush aides say that they are putting their hopes on paid advertising, the wildcard that might be introduced by erstwhile independent candidate Ross Perot's return to the fray and continuing voter uneasiness with Clinton that may not harden into opposition until the final days of the race.

Although the president's standing in the polls has not changed much since mid-summer, the race has tightened because Clinton's huge mid-summer lead has shrunk a bit among some voters, including those Kohut calls the "pocketbook" Democrats, who say that they don't have enough money to make ends meet. That might mean Bush's attempt to label Clinton as a "tax-and-spend" Democrat has penetrated a little.

But these are virtually all must-win states for the president, and the fact that Bush has not safely locked them away at this point underscores his continuing political weakness.

A poll conducted early this week for the Wall Street Journal did show that the president's job approval rising for the first time since January a key indicator in an election that almost inevitably will be a referendum on the incumbent's performance. The bad news for Bush is that those who think he has performed poorly still outnumber his admirers by a margin of 53 percent to 40 percent.

Bush's campaign stops Thursday in Oklahoma and Georgia pointed out another facet of his dilemma: the base of support that elected him in 1988 is still very soft. If he has to fight this hard for the South, the equally crucial Midwest and Northeast may prove out of reach.

The Bush campaign began airing this week a $2.5 million series of ads that are intended to generate more positive feelings about the president as a leader on the economy by highlighting his approach of opening trade and encouraging private business ventures. Surveys show that most people don't even realize Bush has any plan for dealing with the economy, an obstacle the campaign must surmount before it can get voters to choose the president's plan over Clinton's.

But "trust" is really what the Bush campaign hopes the presidential election will be about because surveys show that Clinton is still vulnerable there. In the most recent Times-Mirror survey, the president was selected by a margin of 53 percent to 28 percent as the candidate who would use good judgment in a crisis.

The draft issue, particularly the inconsistencies in Clinton's account of how he escaped being drafted into the Vietnam War, seemed to have the potential to feed doubts about the Democrat's character and judgment.

Sixty percent of those surveyed in CNN-Gallup poll this week said that they are satisfied with Clinton's explanations, compared to 30 percent who said that they were not. In contrast, 55 percent of those same poll respondents said that they weren't satisfied with Bush's explanation that he was "out of the loop" on the Iran-Contra scandal a controversy that has never seemed to hurt him.