PORTLAND, Maine -- In the Northeast, the 1992 presidential campaign is the sound of one hand clapping. When a newspaper here published an opinion poll the other day showing President Bush trailing Democrat Bill Clinton by 17 points in Maine, it seemed to demonstrate that the contest in this part of the country is no contest at all.
No one believes that Mr. Bush is going to lose by 17 points or anything close to that in the state where he has enjoyed a vacation home his entire life. He won here with 55 percent of the vote four years ago.
And Bill Marshall, the Clinton-Gore campaign director, says only that Mr. Clinton has "a decent lead" in the state.
But except for several trips into New Jersey, the president has never made any significant effort to compete for the 127 electoral votes to be cast by the 12 Northeastern states and the District of Columbia.
Just why the Republican president is so out of the contest here is a matter of conjecture. Harold Pachios, a Democratic lawyer and leader here for years, believes he detects signs of the electorate simply turning its back on an incumbent similar to the phenomenon experienced by another sitting president, Democrat Jimmy Carter, 12 years ago.
"It's the Carter syndrome," he said. "The curtain has come down."
A leading Republican in another New England state blames it on the campaign Mr. Bush has conducted -- and especially the message sent by the religious right's influence at the Republican convention in Houston in August.
"Everybody up here felt that Bush was going to really face up to the economy," this Republican says privately, "but he hasn't done a thing. Then there was the convention and all that right-wing stuff. It left regular Republicans with no connection to the ticket."
Here in Maine, there is similar evidence of disconnection between the Republican administration and the electorate.
Richard Gaines, a computer programmer, puts it this way: "I voted for Bush and Reagan before him, but things are tough here and all of a sudden I see Bush and all those Republicans doing their gay-bashing and cracking down on abortion. That isn't what's important."
Renee Robichaux, out of work since her plant closed four months ago, is another Reagan Democrat returning to her party. "We trusted the president because we thought we knew him, him having his place at Kennebunkport and all, but we were wrong. I'm not wild about Clinton, but he seems to know we're hurting."
The picture is not identical in all the states, principally because of the presence on the ballot of Ross Perot. But the most recent published polls show Mr. Clinton with leads above the margin of error in Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia and the District of Columbia.
In 1988, Mr. Bush won all of these states except Massachusetts, the home ground of Michael S. Dukakis, and the centers of Democratic Party strength in this part of the nation -- New York, Rhode Island, West Virginia and Washington, D.C.
If he could repeat that performance today, he would come away with 70 of the 127 electoral votes. As it shapes up with just over a week left in the campaign, Mr. Bush will be lucky to win 20 electoral votes in the entire region. He could be shutout.
The Bush campaign has effectively conceded the two largest states in the region -- New York with 33 electoral votes and Pennsylvania with 23 -- although Mr. Bush made one trip into central Pennsylvania and a later stop in Philadelphia.
But the latter was intended to attract Philadelphia television coverage beamed into the one large Northeast state that offers any promise -- New Jersey, with 15 electoral votes, where he won with 56 percent in 1988.
The Republicans have not given up on New Jersey because of the substantial segment of Reagan Democrats in the electorate -- and because it is virtually impossible for Mr. Bush to reach 270 electoral votes if he doesn't win at least three or four industrial states.
But one leading Republican strategist who asked not to be named argues that the campaign hasn't been relevant. "Everyone in this state is preoccupied with the economy," he said. "So what do we get? A convention none of us could understand, then all this guff about whether Bill Clinton used influence to dodge the draft. It just doesn't have any relevance."
Mr. Bush's situation in New Jersey is complicated somewhat by Mr. Perot, whose support -- about 15 percent at this point -- seems to be coming from Republican-leaning voters who are unhappy with Mr. Bush but find themselves unable to vote for a Democrat.
"If Perot gets 10 percent," the GOP strategist said, "I could see Bush squeaking through here, just barely, but I don't think it's going to happen."
Mr. Perot also may be more of a factor in other states with large proportions of white, suburban, middle-class voters who ordinarily support Republicans -- Connecticut and Delaware, specifically. But, again, it is far from clear that the independent candidate necessarily will do more harm to Democrat Clinton than Republican Bush.
Mr. Perot, the stylized Texan, seems more alien to voters in New York, Pennsylvania and northern New England. "I listen to him," said Harold Keyes, a teacher in New Hampshire, "but I think he's just a colorful figure and every bit as slick as Clinton. I can't take him seriously."
"This Perot is a con man," said Sal Onofrio, a truck driver in Philadelphia. "He's doing a number on us with all that Texas talk. It sounds good but he's not going to be president, so it's just talk."
Mr. Bush's de facto decision to abandon the region can have significant long-term effects on the party balances in some of these states. In Maine, for example, Republican Rep. Olympia J. Snowe is no better than even against Democrat Patrick McGowan, whom she narrowly defeated two years ago. In New Hampshire, both the Senate and gubernatorial results could be altered by a big vote for Mr. Clinton. The same is true of Senate races in New York and Pennsylvania.
The Northeast never has been the most hospitable ground for Mr. Bush, but this year it is a political desert.