BELLE MEAD, N.J. — BELLE MEAD, N.J. -- It was a "photo op" designed as a metaphor for a campaign, and one bound to produce a cliche.

In this rural crossroads about 15 miles north of Princeton, on a gravel driveway between two lines of split rail fence, in the midst of lush fields of vines bent by the weight of ripening grapes, stood Bill Clinton, the Arkansas governor who would be president of the United States.


The Democrat had flown into New Jersey on the eve of last weekend's annual meeting of the National Governors' Association, an organization he successfully used for more than FTC a decade to gain experience and exposure on national issues ranging from education to welfare reform.

Now, with the breeze blowing through his prematurely gray hair, he stood in the bright sunlight among more than a dozen fellow Democratic governors. And Mr. Clinton began to harvest some of the political goodwill he had cultivated with his colleagues.


"Bill Clinton has been working in the vineyard," gushed Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, unashamed by his choice of words. Other Democratic governors chimed in with praise.

Their message was clear: Governor Clinton, they said, has distinguished himself in issues of national interest, and they wanted the country to know his fellow governors have confidence in him.

With a self-assurance unseen in Democratic ranks in years, the governors said they were convinced that if they could keep the campaign focused on the economic issues, where President Bush is vulnerable -- and if Mr. Clinton blasts back each time the president's campaign takes a personal shot at him -- that they would win this fall.

That was undoubtedly Mr. Clinton's strategy.

Asked about a Republican ad that calls him "a failed governor of a small state," he replied without skipping a beat that he thought Mr. Bush was "a failed president of a big country." He then tried to defend himself from accusations that he, too, was waging a negative campaign.

"Is it negative to say that in 1980 we had the highest wages in the world, and now we're 13th? Is there anything false in saying the Census data the government issues proves that most people are working harder for less money than they were 10 years ago? Is there anything wrong with saying the administration's economic policy is what it is: trickle down, keep the taxes low on the wealthiest Americans and do nothing else?"

The real problem, Mr. Clinton declared, "is that [the nation] is going downhill and the American people know it. That's very different from the selective and personal, negative and often distorted tactics our adversaries have adopted already in this election."

Several hours later, Republican governors responded with their own press conference, staged in a corporate office of a stock brokerage firm that, by comparison, was strikingly sterile. They had just completed a private telephone conference call with Mr. Bush and tried their best to sound upbeat, describing the president as eager for the campaign to begin.


But, just as the Democrats had predicted, the Republican comments were mostly attacks on Mr. Clinton and his record in Arkansas. Charles Black, senior political adviser to Bush-Quayle '92, referred to the Democratic nominee as "slippery."

But it was Mr. Black who seemed elusive, or at least uncertain what to say when asked about the GOP's "failed governor of a small state" ad.

He said at first that the Republicans weren't going to use the ad. Minutes later, he qualified that by saying it would not be in the "first wave" of ads. Later, he said he wasn't sure when it would be used, but said the Clinton camp should be on notice that the Republicans were ready to spring such an attack "within 24 hours."

Asked about an editorial in the Orange County Register that had come out that day asking Mr. Bush to step aside, Mr. Black said that he was unfamiliar with the newspaper, even though the newspaper's Southern California readership is considered a conservative Republican stronghold.

The sum of it was that the Republicans, perhaps reflecting the fits and starts of the Bush campaign, seemed off-balance. They knew what their candidate was against (i.e., Mr. Clinton), but said little about what Mr. Bush was for. They predicted the president would begin to catch up as soon as the public heard what he intends to do, although no one suggested what that might be.

The give-and-take got the traditionally non-partisan NGA meeting off to a decidedly partisan start. But once the meeting itself began, the governors did their best to suppress partisan thoughts.


Democratic staffers grumbled that NGA chairman John Ashcroft, the conservative Republican governor of Missouri, had intentionally kept this year's NGA agenda non-controversial to protect Mr. Bush from possible embarrassment. Education reforms were discussed at length, but there was precious little talk of how states could afford such changes.

Only when the meeting was about to end, and next year's NGA agenda was unveiled, did the partisan hats reappear.

As soon as Mr. Romer, who succeeded Mr. Ashcroft as chairman, called for an NGA plan to eliminate the federal budget deficit in five years, Democratic and Republican governors began sparring over whether that would require higher taxes. Some Democrats said they had to be candid: It would. Some Republicans replied that that was just like Democrats to raise taxes.