With Clinton on the rise in polls, Bush's men take to the offense


WASHINGTON -- Frustrated by their failure to revive the president's popularity, Bush campaign strategists are exploiting the powers of incumbency to try to slow down the momentum of his most worrisome rival of the moment, Bill Clinton.

Yesterday, Education Secretary Lamar Alexander became the fourth top-ranking administration official in recent months to deliver a quick counteroffensive to a major policy speech by the soon-to-be Democratic nominee.

At a news conference sponsored by the Bush-Quayle campaign, the Bush Cabinet member accused Mr. Clinton of kowtowing to teachers' union "bosses." He was referring to a speech the Arkansas governor made here two hours earlier to the National Education Association, during which the Democrat received a standing ovation when he said the government "shouldn't give our money away to private schools," as Mr. Bush has proposed.

With the opening of the Democratic Convention less than a week away, the Bush campaign will take as many shots as it can to prevent the Democratic nominee from getting too much of a leg up on the president in the polls, according to James Lake, deputy manager of the Bush re-election effort.

"We don't want Clinton to be able to define a particular issue on his terms only," Mr. Lake said in explaining the surrogate operation. "He ain't going to get away unscathed."

Governor Clinton has sparked new alarm in the Bush camp because he appears to be the beneficiary of a public spat between President Bush and Ross Perot, the independent contender whose still-undeclared bid for the Oval Office has thrown the race into disarray. In one recent poll, Mr. Clinton emerged for the first time as leader in the three-man contest.

Secretary Alexander, a former Tennessee governor, wasn't the only gubernatorial colleague to join the pack of what Mr. Clinton calls "attack dogs" for Mr. Bush this week.

On Monday, Republican Gov. William Weld of Massachusetts was flown by the Bush-Quayle campaign to the Arkansas capital, where he held a press conference to lambaste Mr. Clinton's environmental record.

The Bush team, which has blistered independent Mr. Perot with attacks on his character, is equally interested in setting the record straight about his policy positions. But so far, the Texas businessman has not given them much of an opportunity.

"The problem with Perot is he says so little specifically about the issues and depends so much on general sloganeering that everybody can agree with," said Tony Mitchell, deputy press secretary of the Bush campaign.

With Mr. Clinton, the Bush strategists just follow his public schedule.

When the Democrat was due to give his first major foreign policy statement in March, Mr. Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III upstaged him with a surprise announcement of an aid package for Russia.

On Earth Day in April, Mr. Clinton's environmental address was offset by simultaneous assaults at the White House and by a former Republican political opponent in Little Rock. Michael R. Deland, chairman of the president's Office of Environmental Quality, told reporters that Mr. Clinton "gives new meaning to the word oil slick."

So far, none of the Bush surrogates has come up with the devastating formula many believe proved the undoing of Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis in his race against Mr. Bush in 1988. During that campaign, New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu went around the country contending that the economic boom Governor Dukakis called his "Massachusetts Miracle" was really a "mirage."

The Dukakis lesson was not lost on Mr. Clinton, however, who after the earlier Bush attacks this year decided to fight back when he learned of Governor Weld's planned visit.

His campaign put out press releases highlighting Governor Weld's involvement in a GOP "fund-raising scandal" over "selling access" and noting that Mr. Weld "paid no federal taxes this year."

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