WASHINGTON -- A confluence of diverse factors -- the most significant being the Ross Perot phenomenon -- is distorting the 1992 presidential campaign in a way that may do serious damage to the long-term prospects of Gov. Bill Clinton, the Democrats' apparent nominee.
At just the time Mr. Clinton should be solidifying his base and moving up in the opinion polls as he makes his case to the electorate, the attention being focused on the independent candidacy of Mr. Perot is robbing the Arkansas governor of the media focus he might otherwise expect.
As a result, Mr. Clinton is in danger of being seen as an almost irrelevant also-ran rather than the logical repository of the reaction against President Bush that seems to be growing with every opinion survey.
At this same stage in the cycle four years ago, Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts held a position as de facto nominee comparable to that of Mr. Clinton today. But Mr. Dukakis was earning a reward from winning primary victories over Jesse Jackson every Tuesday in the form of enhanced standing in the polls -- to the point that he led the prospective Republican nominee, George Bush, by almost 20 percentage points by the time of the Democratic convention.
By contrast, Mr. Clinton has been shunted into a role that is
essentially a bystander to the more compelling political drama of Mr. Perot rising and Mr. Bush declining. New surveys in California and Massachusetts find Mr. Clinton a lagging third behind the other two candidates -- Mr. Perot leads narrowly in California, Mr. Bush in Massachusetts -- as was the case in a poll of Texas voters late last month.
Mr. Clinton's problems are not entirely attributable to the Perot candidacy. Since he won the New York primary April 7, the Democratic nominee-designate has had only the token opposition of former Gov. Jerry Brown of California, who lost his political credibility by running third there behind Paul E. Tsongas, who had suspended his campaign. The result has been that the Clinton victories have been dismissed as perfunctory successes against an opponent who, unlike Mr. Jackson in 1988, has no substantial following.
Still, a third factor in the Clinton situation today has been the national focus on the Los Angeles rioting and the effort by the president and Democratic leaders in Congress to fashion some kind of response. Because his campaign from the outset has been directed first at white, middle-class voters, Mr. Clinton has been extremely cautious in his own response lest he risk being projected as "another tax-and-spend liberal" trying to solve social problems by throwing money at them. But the result has made it appear that the likely Democratic presidential nominee is not even a party to the debate.
Recently, Mr. Clinton has also been turning down invitations to appear on national television interview programs that most candidates aggressively seek, apparently because of a feeling among his strategists that programs such as "Meet the Press" focus too narrowly on political mechanics to be helpful to their candidate right now.
There are, of course, some positive factors for Mr. Clinton in the campaign equation right now. In some surveys, although not all, the Arkansas governor's negatives have declined as the memory of the contentious New York primary has receded and Mr. Brown has toned down his rhetoric and received less press attention. Mr. Clinton also has gained enough ground to seem to have a clear lead over Mr. Brown in the June 2 California primary campaign that Mr. Clinton cannot afford to lose even to a home-state candidate.
And, perhaps most importantly, the picture of Mr. Bush as a vulnerable incumbent clearly has been sharpened by the continuing barrage of polls showing a strong reaction against him. The most recent California poll, for example, found the president's "favorable" rating at only 43 percent compared to 56 "unfavorable," almost as unpromising as the 37-54 figures for Mr. Clinton.
But the first imperative for any challenger to an incumbent president is to reassure the electorate that he is not too risky an alternative. And that is usually managed by making the challenger a more familiar figure to the electorate, which in turn usually lifts his ratings in the polls.
And that is precisely what Mr. Clinton is not doing in this period in which he has the assurance of the nomination and the freedom to make an early start on the general election campaign. Instead, he is playing second fiddle to Ross Perot.