WASHINGTON -- Boiled down, this fall's presidential campaign is really about planting a question.
From George Bush's viewpoint, Americans should ask themselves on Election Day: "Who do I trust to run the country?"
To challenger Bill Clinton, the question is: "Can we afford four more years of George Bush?"
How voters ultimately frame the choice in their own minds will determine who wins the presidency. That's why the candidates and their legions of supporters will spend the next two months and $110 million in taxpayer funds trying to get voters to ask the "right" question Nov. 3.
Persuading the surly, fickle electorate won't be easy for either side. In fact, rarely has a national campaign seemed so filled with uncertainty -- and rich with dramatic possibility -- at the outset.
Mr. Bush, the upset-minded incumbent, must mount the greatest comeback in political history if he is to extend the 12-year Republican run at the White House. The Republican convention failed to give him the big lift his strategists were wishing for, and recent polls show him between 10 and 15 percentage points behind.
Harry S. Truman, in his famous 1948 victory, was 11 points down heading into the fall.
Adding to the president's troubles is a limp economy that shows no signs of picking up by Election Day. One recent voter survey found that better than nine out of 10 Americans want a real change in the direction of the country, and fewer than one in six think that re-electing Mr. Bush would make that happen.
For the first time in memory, some Republican candidates are distancing themselves from their party's president. And at Republican national headquarters in Washington the other day, one strategist spoke privately of the possibility that a big Bush loss could sink GOP hopes of gaining congressional seats in the election.
In the meantime, Mr. Clinton is surfing on an explosive current of popular approval that has many of his backers convinced that the presidency is now his to lose. Building on the lessons of Michael S. Dukakis's loss to Mr. Bush in 1988, this year's Democratic nominee has excelled at rapid response to Republican attacks. Mr. Clinton has also mastered the media imagery more often associated with Republican campaigns, most notably his continuing series of bus tours, which have produced lots of pretty pictures and little real substance.
The Arkansas governor, given up for dead by many Democrats after he was accused of marital infidelity and draft dodging during the primaries, has convinced even the most skeptical critics that he is a formidable campaigner. His choice of fellow Southerner (and fellow baby boomer) Al Gore of Tennessee as his running mate produced a telegenic ticket that plays up the new generation theme and puts a number of previously "safe" Republican states in the South and West, such as Georgia, North Carolina, Colorado and Montana, up for grabs for the first time in years.
One of the most vivid symbols of the Clinton resurgence is the willingness of conservative Democrats to be seen on the same platform with the party's ticket.
Tom Murphy, the longtime speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives and a leading conservative, said fellow elected Democrats in his state were almost unanimous in their support for the Clinton-Gore team.
"I'll do whatever they want me to," said Mr. Murphy, who stayed as far away as possible from his party's nominees in 1984 and 1988.
In the latest sign that the 1992 contest won't be played by the usual rules, both nominees have already hit the campaign trail in earnest, not bothering to wait for the traditional Labor Day start. Last week, Mr. Bush's attacks took a sharper edge, and his administration began moving with a new sense of urgency under the leadership of James A. Baker III, the new White House chief of staff.
The president was relentless in pressing his claim that Mr.
Clinton is addicted to raising taxes, prompting the Clinton campaign to accuse Mr. Bush of "intentionally lying to win the election." The cut and thrust of those exchanges offered fresh proof, if any was needed, that the campaign will be a free-swinging one, with plenty of shots below the belt.
Both men are targeting the mega-states of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois, a 99-electoral vote battleground that could prove decisive if the race tightens. But Mr. Bush also has been forced to start out by defending his base in the South, rather than attacking his opponent's strongholds, an indication of the president's weakness.
Despite Mr. Clinton's current lead and the uphill challenge facing Mr. Bush, many experts are once again predicting a close election this fall. This time, they could well be correct.
"The hurricane season is sort of a metaphor for the political season," says Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist. "The climate is unsettled, and rather than the campaign following a predictable path, there seems to be a lot more instability and volatility this time."
One gust that could sway the final result is independent candidate Ross Perot, whose name will be on the ballot in most, if not all, states. Many politicians expect the Texas billionaire to try to inject himself into the fall campaign somehow, and even a modest Perot vote of 4 percent to 8 percent could change the outcome in a closely contested state.
As Mr. Bush tries to close the gap with his Democratic challenger, his official duties give him a major advantage, even in anti-incumbent year. The president has already managed to place himself at the center of several recent foreign policy crises -- playing to his strongest suit, even as he denies any political motive.
The flap over the government's slow response to Hurricane Andrew demonstrated how this can also cut against him, but the disaster in Florida and Louisiana gave Mr. Bush a fresh opportunity to dispel the perception that he cares more about problems overseas than those at home.
With voter attitudes toward both nominees still soft, and Mr. Clinton not yet a familiar figure to most Americans, the campaign could change dramatically over the next nine weeks.
Americans may be eager for a change of leadership in Washington, but that is only the first part of a two-stage decision to vote Mr. Bush out and Mr. Clinton in. The Republicans are now hammering away at the second half of the equation -- trying to prevent voters from getting comfortable with the idea of a President Clinton.
Pulling a page out from his old strategy book, Mr. Bush is attempting to define his opponent as just another tax-and-spend liberal, largely by using distorted figures on Mr. Clinton's economic proposals and record as governor.
Thus far, the attacks haven't had a measurable impact, but Bush aides are confident they'll find their mark.
Mr. Clinton "is not perceived as a raging liberal at this point," concedes Charles Black, a senior Bush political adviser and a skilled hand at the game of negative politics. "But we're just getting down to it."
Others aren't sure the old approach will work against a moderate Southerner the way it did against a liberal Northeasterner four years ago.
To win, "the Bush campaign is going to really have to get an angle on the character issue," says independent pollster Brad Coker of Columbia, Md., whose firm has polled in 40 states this year. "It may take more ammunition than they can come up with."
Some top Clinton supporters fear that their man could be at a disadvantage if the race gets close. They note that the Democrat has never run a national campaign before and worry about his failure to translate his change message into simple themes that ordinary voters can grasp.
But his campaign lieutenants ooze confidence these days. Mr. Clinton has shown the country that he's "a pretty strong guy, a pretty tough guy. He's smart," says senior strategist James Carville.
Despite attacks during the Republican convention, followed by Mr. Clinton's appearance before the American Legion, in which he addressed the controversy over his decision to avoid the draft during the Vietnam era, "we're pretty whole right now," the Clinton aide said.