HOUSTON -- Cheered on by a claque of big-city mayors, Gov. Bill Clinton has seized the political offensive for the first time in at least three months with his new game plan for reviving the economy.
Just three weeks before the national convention at which he will become the Democratic nominee for president, the Arkansas governor has taken an initiative that offers a sharp contrast with the silence on key issues of President Bush and independent candidate Ross Perot.
Mr. Clinton's appearance before the 60th annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors evoked an outpouring of support from Democratic mayors that, although predictable, gave at least the appearance of momentum to a campaign that had been struggling for attention ever since Mr. Perot burst onto the national stage in March.
The "national economic strategy" -- as Mr. Clinton labeled it -- also served another political purpose for the Democrat: changing the subject from the running feud with the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson over rap singer Sister Souljah, which had dominated the political discussion for more than a week. Moreover, shows of highly visible support from black leaders here -- including Mayors Maynard Jackson of Atlanta, Sharpe James of Newark, N.J., and Norman Rice of Seattle -- demonstrated that Mr. Clinton's strength in the black community is not entirely dependent on Jesse Jackson's good will.
Mr. Clinton even won a de facto endorsement from Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, the outgoing president of the conference who had been conducting an obvious flirtation with the Perot campaign and had appeared to be dragging his heels on supporting the likely Democratic candidate.
"As far as I'm concerned, this is the first day of the national campaign," Mr. Flynn said in an interview. The Boston mayor said Mr. Clinton "has put something on the table now that both Bush and Perot have to deal with" by offering a program that promises more jobs for U.S. cities. As a result, the mayor indicated, he intends to finally endorse Mr. Clinton as soon as his leadership of the bipartisan conference ends this week.
There is, of course, some risk for the Democratic nominee in advancing a plan that calls for higher taxes on the wealthy and more spending on such things as bridges and highways -- specifically the likelihood that Republicans will try to nail Mr. Clinton as another "tax-and-spend liberal" in the mold of Walter F. Mondale and Michael S. Dukakis.
"That's the challenge," Mr. Flynn said. "He's got to make sure he's not painted into the corner."
But Democratic strategists believe that such attacks by the Republicans are inevitable in any case and that the first priority for Mr. Clinton was to project himself as the candidate offering concrete solutions to national problems. That theme was echoed by Democratic mayors after Mr. Clinton spoke.
Mayor Jerry Abramson of Louisville called the Clinton initiative "a game plan that can put this country back to work." Said Seattle's Mr. Rice: "It's a sound plan that recognizes this country has to change itself." And Mr. James of Newark added: "We have a man with a plan."
The key man in rallying the city executives behind their apparent nominee was Mayor Jackson. According to several mayors who attended a closed meeting before the conference session, it was the Atlanta mayor who delivered the most compelling case for Democrats to rally publicly and enthusiastically behind Mr. Clinton. The Democratic candidate, Mayor Jackson reminded them, was the only one offering anything in the way of serious help to cities and the working poor.
In his speech to the conference, Mr. Clinton touched on the major points in his plan and argued that for the past 12 years under Republican administrations "the country has been in the grip of a false idea" -- that tax cuts for business and the wealthy would provide incentives to create jobs. Mr. Clinton said "the right idea" is a plan that invests in programs that will permit the United States to compete internationally and create jobs.
He conceded that his program did not meet the Mayors Conference demand for a $35 billion program in the next year. But he said his plan would provide more help over the next four years and thereafter. "This will change the future," he said.
The future of the Clinton plan is obviously in doubt. But the one certainty now is that the Democratic nominee has used it to get off the defensive in his three-way confrontation with Mr. Bush and Mr. Perot.