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Why Am I Here?

The making of the Clinton victory preceded the debates. "Debates are to campaigns as treaties are to wars," said Sam Popkin, Clinton's deputy pollster. "They ratify what you've won on the ground." In the months before the contenders confronted each other on stage, Clinton, ever the assiduous student, progressed up the grades of the Electoral College. As early as May a poll showed that in a two-way race with George Bush in California he was definitively ahead. Though Ross Perot was about to inflate into a gigantic (combustible) dirigible, filling the vacuum of Clinton's and Bush's negatives, it was clear that Clinton had a wider potential base than Democratic candidates in the past. The states that had gone for Michael Dukakis, plus at least California, were lying beyond the mist and fog.

By the conclusion of the Democratic convention, the party's constituencies were locked in more tightly than at any time since 1964. Single white men, who had been the single worst category for the Democrats, were now among the strongest. Of course, the economy was a factor in the shift. But the chemistry of the Clinton-Gore generational ticket had also catalyzed it. And Illinois, which Dukakis had only narrowly lost, had moved firmly into Clinton's column.

Then came the Republican convention, perhaps the most beneficial event for the Democratic Party in two decades. In reaction to the "Kulturkampf" of Houston, all the New England states, including New Hampshire, threw themselves into Clinton's camp. His margins in Maine and Vermont, two normally Republican states, approached 25 points--beyond the 20-point margins in New York and California. Connecticut, also usually Republican, was near 20 points. Pennsylvania became a Clinton state, with the margin near that of Illinois--about 20. Clinton was also ahead in Colorado by 5 to 10 points. Catholics were now for Clinton by a 25-point margin.

For Bush to win he had to sweep everything else on the map. But his speech finally unveiling his economic program set off a perverse chain reaction. By calling attention to his inattention, he referred voters to his hollowness. A whole new layer of the disaffected peeled off. By late September New Jersey and Michigan had blown for Clinton, and Georgia and North Carolina too were creeping into double-digit margins.

In fact, Bush's problem was insoluble. Despite generous reviews from the press, his acceptance speech had hurt him. So had his economic speech. Whenever he appeared for any prolonged period in the public's eye, his rating fell. Moreover, Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles Times discovered that whenever Bush campaigned in a state, his numbers there declined. The president, who had no coherent strategy, was becoming an anathema. His best gambit might have been invisibility.

Instead, Bush attacked Clinton's patriotism. The tactic of red-baiting him for a 1969 student trip to Moscow, which Bush sustained for three days before suddenly dropping it, utterly backfired. Until that moment, the margin in the popular vote had hovered in the 10- to 14-point range. Now, within seventy-two hours, Bush lost 10 points in his favorability rating and dropped 6 more behind Clinton. In a meeting of Clinton's advisers, Bob Squier, Al Gore's media consultant, proposed that the Clinton campaign buy five minutes on every network the night before the election for George Bush to appear.

The panicky Bush threw himself into the hands of James Baker, who assumed the guise that Bush ought to have: the invisible man. Initially Baker believed that stonewalling debates would allow Bush to make the contest more fluid. Baker's reasoning on debates has always been that setting a date freezes the campaign until the event. But stonewalling did not move Bush's numbers. So, under intense criticism, Baker called for a debate a week--a formula for keeping the campaign in flux. At last he approved a compromise on formats that would almost inevitably undermine Bush: Perot was bound to wear thin; Clinton was bound to do well, at least once; and Bush, alas, had to appear.

In the first debate, Bush unleashed his "character" attack on Clinton, which Clinton blunted by citing Bush's father, Senator Prescott Bush: "Your father was right to stand up to Joe McCarthy; you were wrong to attack my patriotism." When Clinton mentioned the name "Prescott Bush," George Bush emitted an involuntary grunt as though he felt the wound deep within. Perot, the carny barker, tied Bush to a spinning wheel and tossed knives at him, rarely missing his target. In the polls, Bush finished third.

In the vice presidential debate, Dan Quayle yipped 16 and yapped, trying to appeal to the pit-bull Republicans. His ninety minutes of unceasing barking was his first performance in the 1996 GOP campaign. Gore was simply his foil for the real battle against Jack Kemp, Phil Gramm, and whomever else. Gore's smooth responses were almost irrelevant. The key was James Stockdale, the existential man, a former prisoner of war recruited to stand in for Perot's eventual running mate. Unfortunately, that entity never turned up, so once again, as Perot's hostage, Stockdale served his country. By displaying his unfitness, he performed a higher duty. The slight fluidity that Perot had introduced into the race during the first debate was drained by his worthy No. 2.

In the second presidential debate, Bush attempted ed to renew the snarling, but was halted by a citizen-interlocutor, who admonished him for not sticking to the issues. Bush retreated, humbled. Three times he glanced at his watch, perhaps trying to gauge his plan but conveying his distraction. Perot, meanwhile, became a feedback loop his distraction. Perot, meanwhile, became a feedback loop of worn aphorisms: "Do you want to the problem or sound-bite it?" And Clinton, in the format of his choice, walked in and out of the crowd throughout the call and response. Bush made his closing statement from behind his chair. In the polls, he finished third. In the third debate, Bush again mounted the attack on Clinton, without pesky voters around to scold him. But he mixed his rehearsed nastiness with a more authentic and beguiling daffiness. Asked about the representation of women in his inner circle, he praised his deputy assistant, Rose Zamaria (who makes no policy), for being "about as tough as a boot." Then he added: 'Jim Baker's a man. Yeah, I plead guilty to that." And he spoke of having "90-90 hindsight." Clinton kept things steady, parrying Bush's attacks. And Perot once again tossed knives, including the stiletto engraved "Iraqgate." In the polls, Bush finished third.

For the Republicans, the only imperative is self-preservation. In New York, Senator Alfonse D'Amato declared that on issue after issue, he "agrees" with Clinton. Three GOP congressional candidates in Pennsylvania publicly disavowed Bush. In New Jersey, another Republican candidate laughed derisively when asked about Bush's political coattails. In California, Governor Pete Wilson, Bush's state chairman, declined to campaign for him. "I am closer to Bill Clinton," announced the fading Republican Senator Bob Kasten of Wisconsin. In Oregon, Senator Bob Pack-wood was challenged in a debate by his Democratic opponent to say whether he would vote for Bush. He did not answer. And Bush national co-chair Vin Weber traveled to California, explaining, "I'm campaigning for candidates who can win. "Social Darwinism has come to the Republican Party.

What Bush has left is $20 million for negative commercials. The question remaining is whether he will exceed Barry Goldwater's 38 points; perhaps Herbert Hoover's 41. Bush needn't check his watch anymore He has a reservation on a flight leaving Washington in the late morning of January 20, 1993.

Sidney Blumenthal is a senior editor at The New Republic.

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By Sidney Blumenthal