WASHINGTON -- Ross Perot may not be the only candidate to have recently vanished from the presidential radar screen. Voters haven't seen much lately of the smooth-talking, slippery fellow they first got to know as Slick Willie.
In his place on the campaign trail has been a warm, likable guy who walks hand-in-hand with his wife, rides a bus around America's white picket fences, talks about his meager, small-town beginnings -- and caused Democrats to wonder if, for the first time since the mid-70s, one of their own might actually make it to the White House.
The once bruised and battle-weary Democratic weakling has almost miraculously become a strapping contender to whom voters have taken a sudden liking. To be sure, part of the dramatic turnabout in public sentiment stems from a carefully orchestrated plan by the Clinton campaign to counter earlier charges of marital infidelity, draft dodging and other such "character" issues by evoking family themes and images and by filling out the Clinton portrait with increased exposure on television and at town meetings.
"We found a lot of forums for people to get to know him," says Clinton media adviser Mandy Grunwald. "He spent a lot of June on television interview shows."
But the sudden surge may have less to do with the Democratic nominee, and more to do with the way this volatile campaign year has unfolded. Some point to the months of critical attention focused on former presidential contender Perot that gave Mr. Clinton the time and space to redefine himself for the electorate.
"If it had not been for the respite Ross Perot gave Clinton -- the opening to build some sense of public identity, a personal sense of self that was not Gennifer Flowers and inept smoking of marijuana -- I don't think he could have done it on his own," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania.
As Mr. Perot and George Bush were beating up on each other, Mr. Clinton, safely out of both Texans' fields of fire, unveiled his economic policy and went on morning news shows and call-in shows to talk about not only his policy positions but his personal history.
Mr. Perot galvanized the anti-Bush, anti-Washington sentiment, and then, as California pollster Mervin Field said last week, "turned the harvest over to Clinton." For the Democrats, the feisty billionaire couldn't have picked a better time.
As the nation watched the once-formidable Perot candidacy crumble on one channel, it saw a handsome Democratic team awash in balloons and confetti and unity, on another.
"Obviously, people perceive substance, but those pictures were dynamite," says University of Maryland communications professor John Splaine.
Continued dissatisfaction with Mr. Bush, and the perception that the Republican camp is in disarray, have also made for a stark contrast between the two parties and thrown Mr. Clinton increasing adulation, reinforced by positive media coverage.
"Some of it is their doing," Democratic strategist Wendy Sherman says of the Clinton campaign's efforts to redefine their candidate. "Some of it is Bush's undoing."
Indeed, the two candidates have appeared to be on opposite ends of a seesaw since the campaign began.
It was just last April, as the Arkansas governor trailed in every matchup with Mr. Bush and was viewed unfavorably by twice as many voters as found him agreeable, that Time magazine wondered on acover, "Why Voters Don't Trust Clinton." Today, Mr. Clinton, regarded favorably by nearly 60 percent of voters, is basking in roughly 20- to 30-point leads over President Bush in national and statewide polls.
Although the distance Mr. Clinton has sprinted ahead is remarkable, one only has to look back to last year -- when Mr. Bush had the approval of nearly 90 percent of the electorate -- to recognize the flimsiness of such measurements. Neither party expects the Clinton momentum, or his sizable lead, to hold.
"The fundamental knowledge that drove his negatives up in the first place is still there," Robert M. Teeter, the Bush campaign chairman, says of Mr. Clinton.
But not surprisingly, a number of voters say they're tilting toward the Democrat out of their increasingly negative feelings toward the incumbent. "It's almost like Clinton is the only one left," says Republican Meredith Light, a Washington advertising producer. "It's like you're forcing yourself to try to like him more."
What she genuinely likes is Mr. Clinton's abortion rights position and the fact that he was "daring" enough to lash out against what he perceived as hateful, racist comments by rapper Sister Souljah and risk a confrontation with the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.
Similarly, Fairfax, Va., schoolteacher Louis Gates has only considered voting for Mr. Clinton in recent weeks. "But I think it has to do with being dissatisfied more with Bush," he says. "Plus the [Democratic] party is changing and becoming more moderate." He cites Mr. Clinton's vows to reform the welfare system, his more restrained support of unions and, again, his challenge to Mr. Jackson as evidence that the party is moving more to the center.
Some new Clinton supporters say that, almost inexplicably, they've warmed to the candidate they once were wary of.
"I don't know if he's doing anything different, but he seems different now," says Karen Jensen, a Washington magazine editor who has voted Republican most of her life. "There's less of the mind-numbing statistics and more of the personal stuff."
In her eyes, something "snapped into place" for the Arkansas governor after he selected Tennessee Sen. Al Gore as his running mate. "I don't think it was even Gore per se as much as the combined strength they seemed to have," says Ms. Jensen. "All of a sudden, Clinton seemed like a serious, admirable candidate. He seemed more presidential. . . ."
The University of Maryland's Mr. Splaine, in fact, traces the recent Clinton surge to "90 seconds at the governor's mansion" when Mr. Clinton walked outside, trailed by Senator Gore and their wives and children, to announce his vice presidential selection. The portrait of the two attractive, all-American families seemed to resonate with energy and promise, he says, and also helped deflate doubts about the candidate's devotion to "family values."
Vince Velez, a federal financial specialist, says that he and his wife were initially leery of Mr. Clinton, but thought his post-convention excursion into the heartland made a "profound statement" about his commitment to the middle class.
"The bus tour was a brilliant stroke in that for four or five days, people saw these two guys walking through Norman Rockwell (( scenes expounding on their small town roots and middle-American values," says media consultant David Axelrod, an adviser to the campaign.
Indeed, in the past two months, Mr. Clinton has imbued most of his appearances with such wholesome images and personal disclosures.
At the convention, he appeared nearly exclusively with his wife, Hillary -- who herself had softened some of her sharper "career woman" edges -- and daughter Chelsea. In his acceptance speech, the candidate spoke of the death of his father, growing up with an alcoholic and abusive stepfather, his mother's struggle to take care of her family and the birth of his child -- tying these experiences to his policies.
"That is the strongest way to anchor public policy proposals," says Ms. Jamieson of the Annenberg School. "It answers the credibility question. It doesn't matter what your policy is. If it comes from personal experience, people trust you believe it."
Not everyone was impressed by the obvious attempts to strike personal chords with voters. In a review of the convention for Newsweek, former Reagan and Bush speech writer Peggy Noonan criticized both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore, who spoke about his son's nearly fatal accident.
"The real pain in a person's life is interior; the anguish unveiled in these speeches seems a surrogate for genuine pain, and the device seems not revelatory but deceptive," she said.
But even while some voters say they recognized the personal talk as a political "device," they also found themselves responding to it.
Cathy Seay, of Alexandria, Va., who describes herself as a "swing voter," says she was especially won over by the candidate's rapport with his wife and daughter. "We were all watching for that interaction, and it seemed very strong." That interaction, in fact, diluted some of her earlier concerns about Mr. Clinton's alleged infidelity and, thus, honesty.
"I still don't like it, but I do respect the fact that they seem to have worked it out," she says. "That's a redeeming factor."