LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- These days, they look like a Democratic dream team, this diverse group of men and women who run Bill Clinton's campaign.
The Democratic nominee has a double-digit lead in the polls, and even though there are two months to go, his staff can boast they've gotten a jump on the Republicans.
So why, then, do they act as if it's the bottom of the ninth and they're down by a run?
"You never know what's going to happen in politics," says strategist James Carville, a veteran Washington-based consultant who has worked on many state campaigns. "People have changed their opinion on a lot of things in a short period of time this year."
More than anyone else on the staff, Mr. Carville, 47, personifies the spirit of the Clinton campaign. Intense and aggressive, he TC seems to be running even in those rare moments when he's sitting still. It is not hard to think of the lean Louisianan, nicknamed the "ragin' Cajun," as a greyhound, relentlessly pursuing a quarry always just beyond his jaws.
As a tactician and message craftsman, Mr. Carville helps set the tone and daily direction of the campaign at meetings that begin at 7 a.m. (maybe a little later on weekends, he says). The most sensitive business is discussed in the "war room," upstairs in the old Arkansas Gazette newspaper building rented by the campaign.
The Little Rock staff keeps in constant touch with the traveling candidate and his road crew, notably policy director Bruce Reed, longtime personal confidant Bruce Lindsey and press secretary Dee Dee Myers. Though the Gazette is out of business, the building is more than ever a high-tech news gathering center, alert to Republican movements and changes in the political landscape.
"We try to anticipate as much as possible," Mr. Carville says, wolfing down microwaved popcorn in a snack room at headquarters. "We're constantly monitoring the [news] wires."
Time is the campaign's enemy. Trying to "take our best shot every day," the campaign must maximize opportunities to get its message tovoters while rebutting the opposition's charges, says Eli J. Segal, the chief of staff.
"The world that I come from, the world of the business executive, would have a lot of trouble dealing with the time compression, the decision-making framework," says the soft-spoken Mr. Segal, 49, who runs a pair of companies in Boston and hired Mr. Clinton to work on the campaign of 1972 Democratic nominee George McGovern.
While it might seem that such a situation cries out for a single, all-powerful leader, the campaign doesn't have one -- other than Mr. Clinton.
"We kind of have a group decision-making structure," says campaign manager David C. Wilhelm, 35, a political consultant who ran Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley's campaigns. "And I think although that may result in some confusion from the outside, it works rather well on the inside."
But campaign decision-making has tightened considerably.
Mr. Segal joined full time last spring to bring what he terms "discipline" to an "amorphous" organization in which people were doing things outside their areas: Pollster Stan Greenberg, for example, was writing speeches part time, while media adviser Frank Greer, a whiz at developing television advertisements, was helping out on campaign scheduling.
One of Mr. Segal's "cardinal responsibilities" has been to integrate into the organization the new people and added resources that come with the transition from a primary to general election campaign.
Several of Mr. Clinton's top aides from the early primary season remain key decision-makers, among them:
* Mr. Carville, whose consulting partner, Paul Begala, 31, also works for the campaign. They directed the upset victory last November of Democratic Sen. Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania.
* Communications director George R. Stephanopoulos, 31. Always ready with a pithy response to Republican attacks, he helps frame the campaign's response to major issues.
* Betsey Wright, 49, research director and former chief of Mr. Clinton's gubernatorial staff. Her responsibilities include investigating what she charges are Republican-inspired rumors about Mr. Clinton's personal life.
At the top of the organizational chart is Los Angeles lawyer Mickey Kantor, the 53-year-old campaign chairman and a bridge to important party and public officials.