GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When President Bush unloaded on Bill Clinton with some conspicuously personal rhetoric here in Florida last weekend, it was a reminder of the president's declaration that he will do whatever it takes to win this election.
The same clearly can be said of the notorious Bush television commercial that accuses the Democratic nominee of plotting to raise the taxes of everyone who earns more than $36,000 a year. That one was so smelly -- the Republicans admitted it was based on their own assumptions and extrapolations rather than any evidence -- it has been denounced by conservative and liberal editorialists alike.
The message in all this is that a month before the election the president and his strategists fully understand their campaign is in serious jeopardy. And if further evidence were required, it is there in the fact Bush is still rushing in and out of Texas and Florida, the two states essential to his re-election that he should have locked away weeks ago.
In Florida, which Bush carried with 61 percent of the vote four years ago, published polls now show the race essentially even or within the margin for statistical error. But polls made privately for other Democratic candidates show Clinton with a definite if not unassailable lead of between six and 10 points.
Bush's problem here, as elsewhere, is his inability to make persuasive case on the economy when there are new statistics appearing every week to define the menacing dimensions of the problem. Thus, the president's only strategic option is to try to demonize Clinton as he did Michael S. Dukakis four years ago when the 1988 Democratic nominee was so weak here he effectively shut down his campaign office before Oct. 1.
As a result, the question Florida politicians in both parties are asking one another is whether Bush has something up his sleeve that will constitute an ugly October surprise for Clinton.
It is doubtful that rhetoric alone will do it, although the president, despite his devotion to "kinder and gentler," is clearly willing to make the effort. Campaigning in Fort Lauderdale Saturday, Bush said "this guy couldn't remember in detail that he didn't inhale 20 years ago and he can't remember what came out of his mouth 20 minutes ago."
Defining what he called "Clintonesia," the president said: "weak knees, sweaty palms and an incredible desire to say anything on all sides of any issue, depending on who you're trying to please." And, Bush added, "I do believe that serving in uniform is a good criterion for being commander in chief of the armed forces."
But the problem here is that although the attacks on the Arkansas governor seemed to have raised his negatives slightly in recent polls, Bush's negatives are rising even faster.
So what can Bush do? A few months ago, when the first signs of serious trouble for the president appeared, the sick joke making the rounds was that Saddam Hussein better watch the polls Oct. 1 lest he become an instant target. But by this point the president lacks the credibility to go off on some foreign adventure to save his political skin.
Nor can Bush save himself at this point by trying to signal radical change by firing Cabinet members as he did Ed Derwinski, the secretary of Veterans Affairs and longtime Bush loyalist. The only answer would appear to be either a wipeout triumph for the president in the debates beginning Sunday, an unlikely although not impossible scenario, or some new and more credible attack on Clinton.
Right now, however, the Democratic nominee is buoyantly riding the tide of reaction against the president. Even here in central Florida, hostile ground for a generation of Democratic presidential candidates, Clinton is the one on a roll. When his latest bus tour reached Orlando, Gov. Lawton Chiles recalled how Democratic candidates had run away from Walter F. Mondale in 1984 and Dukakis in 1988, then added, "You see us all now, fighting to get up on the platform."
Unless the president has something very special in his bag of tricks, these Democrats are convinced Bill Clinton has a realistic chance to carry Florida. No wonder George Bush is talking tough.