WASHINGTON -- It wasn't all that long ago that Democrats feared they'd be committing political suicide if they put as battered and flawed a candidate as Bill Clinton at the top of their ticket. And it wasn't that long ago that Republicans figured George Bush, Desert Storm victory in his pocket, could waltz to Inauguration Day without breaking a sweat.
Now, of course, it's the president who appears battered and beleaguered and the Arkansas governor who looks like he's on his way to the ball.
The two candidates who'll meet in the first round of debates tonight, along with Ross Perot, have gone through not only one of the most volatile election years ever but also some of the most remarkable transformations of image and popularity in modern political history.
There is no single moment when fortunes changed for each of the candidates. But a look at the two candidates' favorable ratings throughout the year -- charted, they look like mirror images of each other -- suggests several pivotal and decisive moments along the way that changed the profile and perceptions of each man.
In Mr. Clinton's case, many see as turning points in his campaign his survival of the difficult New Hampshire primary, the skillfully choreographed Democratic convention and, perhaps most of all, Ross Perot's game of hide-and-seek.
For George Bush, a steady drip of poor domestic news has been telescoped by such events as his trip to a J.C. Penney store in Frederick lastChristmastime to buy socks and thus spur economic growth, and his ill-fated trip to Japan in January.
While pollsters say it's not that unusual for an incumbent to rise or fall dramatically in public opinion during an election year, they say it's more unusual -- virtually unheard of, in fact -- for a challenger as unpopular as Mr. Clinton was during the primaries to be suddenly deemed acceptable and even desirable.
A number of strategists trace the rehabilitation of his image back to the New Hampshire primary in February. He was pummeled with charges of adultery, draft-dodging and slickness, but kept on going.
"Clinton gutted it out," says Bob Beckel, campaign manager for Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale in 1984. "He went to event after event, shook every hand he could get a hold of, and fought his way back into the race. He was walking around with three harpoons in him and he came back."
Daniel Hallin, a communications professor at the University of California at San Diego, says he remembers being initially skeptical about Mr. Clinton. "After a while, I thought, 'This guy is a good campaigner. It's quite amazing he's been able to go through such incredible difficulties and survive.' "
His competition during the primaries was admittedly weak, but voters took another look each time the Arkansas governor racked up another victory and knocked out another Democratic opponent.
Still, even by the end of the primary season, he trailed in two-way and three-way polls and continued to be beset by questions of character and credibility.
His largest leap from long shot to front-runner -- the true turning point for his campaign -- came in mid-July, a brief period that turned out to be a sort of harmonic convergence for the Democrat.
Mr. Clinton made the popular choice of Tennessee Sen. Al Gore for a running mate, presided over a picture-perfect convention that highlighted his small-town roots and his differences with the traditional Democratic Party, and was the unwitting benefactor of Mr. Perot's withdrawal from the race.
"Before the Democratic convention, voters dismissed the guy," says Republican strategist Neil Newhouse, who has conducted focus groups during the campaign season. "He was almost like an afterthought." But following the convention, he says, "It was like a rebirth of the guy, like he'd gone into a cocoon and come out a new and improved Bill Clinton."
The Gallup Poll recorded the largest post-convention bounce in its history, says Larry Hugick, Gallup managing editor. Suddenly, Mr. Clinton was out front.
No one underestimates how major a role Ross Perot played in changing the fortunes of the Democrat. "Had Perot not entered the race when he did, the story would have been, 'Bush continues to lead Clinton' -- and who's to say that wouldn't have continued?" Mr. Hugick says. "Perot seemed to be the catalyst."
Mr. Perot, the maverick billionaire, stirred up the protest vote. And then, when he bowed out of the race, he hand-delivered it to Mr. Clinton, and also helped the Democratic nominee shed some of the character and trust problems that are still dogging him.
"Perot had looked to people like character itself," says Mark Crispin Miller, a media professor at the Johns Hopkins University. "When he bugged out, he made Clinton look like the one with steel in his guts. Clinton had been smeared as Mr. '60s and therefore a man of no character. But the contrast between his stick-to-itiveness and Perot's fickleness strengthened Clinton's image."
The turning of the president's fortunes goes back further than the campaign season, further than the New Hampshire primary, further even than the Persian Gulf war, say strategists and pollsters.
In fact, without the war, which drove Mr. Bush's job approval rating up to nearly 90 percent, his fall from favor would not have been dramatic at all.
The gulf crisis, Mr. Miller says, gave the president "a false boost. It distracted people from how bad things were domestically and granted the president an aura of potency and invincibility. If you took the war out of his story, you'd have seen much less volatile movement on his part."
Indeed, in June 1990, Mr. Bush's popularity was already beginning to plummet, especially among Republicans, as he'd just broken his "read my lips" campaign pledge and increased taxes. His poll numbers were heading downward when, months later, Iraq invaded Kuwait and the country was focused not on new taxes but on new tanks and missiles.
Although the commander-in-chief's popularity soared during the war, it started again on a slow, steady decline afterward and has continued on that path ever since. Mr. Newhouse points to the period between the end of the war and October of '91 as the decisive period for Mr. Bush.
"He failed to spend the political capital he'd gained from Desert Storm," the GOP strategist says. "He could have declared war on domestic problems."
From the beginning of the campaign season last November, a series of pivotal events reinforced the perception of the president as weak, each one knocking his popularity down a rung or two.
On Nov. 5, his former attorney general, Richard Thornburgh, lost the Pennsylvania Senate race to Democrat Harris Wofford, a defeat many pegged as a sign of things to come. Later that month, Mr. Bush declared that the country was not in a recession, and then bought athletic socks at a Frederick mall as an example of consumer spending he hoped others would follow.
By the end of last year, less than half the electorate approved of the job Mr. Bush was doing. After his January trade mission to Japan, in which a flu bug finished off an already unimpressive trip, "his approval rating headed downward again," notes Mr. Hugick of Gallup.
Despite high hopes for his State of the Union address later that month, the speech outlining new prescriptions for patching up the economy did nothing to spur support. The next month, reports that Mr. Bush was awe-struck by grocery-store scanners furthered the perception of him as out of touch.
"In the midst of all this, he's being challenged by [conservative Republican] Pat Buchanan," Mr. Newhouse adds. "That hurt Bush significantly. It got people within the party starting to question his leadership and question whether they should support him."
Enter Ross Perot. If Mr. Buchanan's hammering of the president opened the door to anti-Bush sentiment, Mr. Perot made it
acceptable to walk through and embrace it.
With the exception of a brief period after the GOP convention, Mr. Bush's approval ratings have not risen above the 30s and 40s all year. Now he has 23 days to turn it all around. The next nine days, with nearly back-to-back debates, offer Mr. Bush his best chance to dramatically transform his image one last time and recapture some of the adulation he enjoyed in earlier times.
With recent national polls placing Mr. Clinton 10 to 15 points ahead of the president and the Democrat leading in enough states to give him more than the necessary 270 electoral votes, it will, indeed, take nothing less than high drama to shift this landscape.
But ironically, while the warm-up to the fall campaign season was marked by wild mood swings among the voters and image make-overs among the candidates, the polls and perceptions have been relatively stable and static in the final stretch.