WASHINGTON -- With Ross Perot's support beginning to wane in the wake of his vague charges of Republican dirty tricks, both the Clinton and Bush camps are trying to assess which of them benefits most from the latest twist in this year's political drama.
Officials of President Bush's campaign were heartened yesterday by a slight tightening of the race reflected in national polls, with the president's support moving from the low-30s to the mid-30s and the race growing closer in the industrial Midwest.
In the latest ABC News poll, Democrat Bill Clinton led with 42 percent, trailed by Mr. Bush at 35 percent and independent candidate Perot with 20 percent.
Similarly, in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, Mr. Clinton led with 43 percent, with Mr. Bush at 36 percent and Mr. Perot losing ground with 15 percent.
"This is the first time -- the last two days -- that the Bush number actually has moved," Bush campaign manager Robert Teeter told reporters yesterday.
He said the campaign's internal tracking, like the new national polls, suggests a Clinton lead of 6 to 7 percentage points over Mr. Bush.
The new Bush support, campaign officials believe, is coming from both Clinton and Perot defectors.
"A lot of those people who put Perot from 10 to 20 points [in the polls] came from Clinton," said Bush senior adviser Charles Black.
,.5l "Normally, if a voter leaves a candidate in the last two weeks of an election, they don't go back to that candidate."
A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released yesterday showed an even greater tightening of the race, with Mr. Bush within striking distance of Democrat Bill Clinton for the first time since the summer.
But this poll of likely voters, which showed Mr. Clinton with 40 percent support, Mr. Bush with 38 percent and Mr. Perot with 16 percent, was so out of line with the other national surveys that even the Republicans were viewing it with caution.
Still, even the Clinton campaign admitted yesterday that some of the Perot slippage was boosting Mr. Bush.
"There's lots of evidence of declining Perot support," said Clinton pollster Stan Greenberg on CNN. "The first piece of that support has gone to Bush."
While he agreed that the race was narrowing between the Republican and Democratic nominees, he put the Clinton lead in the 7-to-10 percentage point range and took issue with the methodology of the CNN poll.
Mr. Clinton, campaigning in Jackson, Miss., yesterday, said he thought the polls were going to be "like an accordion" between now and election day.
For his part, the Arkansas governor made an indirect appeal to Perot supporters yesterday, saying on NBC's "Today" show that if he wins the White House, he'd like to have Mr. Perot's "involvement on the issues that he cares about and knows about," such as POW-MIA issues and the deficit.
Later, he told reporters, "I don't think he [Mr. Perot] wants a position, but would I let him be involved? Yeah."
And the Clinton campaign circulated an "open letter" to the Texas billionaire's supporters, announcing that 122 former Perot supporters, including nine previous statewide coordinators, were endorsing the Democratic ticket.
The letter admonished voters: "A vote for Ross Perot could let George Bush and Dan Quayle in through the back door for four more years."
But even less clear than the impact of eroding Perot support on the popular vote is its impact on the electoral map.
Although most state-by-state accounts still show a Clinton electoral landslide, with all of the top 10 states eluding the president, Bush officials maintained yesterday that his quest for 270 electoral votes was not out of reach.
Mr. Black claimed that the Republicans have a comfortable lead in enough states to give them 132 electoral votes and that they are ahead, although not comfortably, in states yielding 66 votes.
About 150 electoral votes, he said, are "in play."
"We've still got to move the race," he conceded. "It's moving. But if we voted today we would not win."
For his part, Mr. Perot tried to win back any defectors and energize his slowing campaign by stepping out, for only the second time since declaring his candidacy, on the campaign trail.
Last night, he attended a rally in Denver, where his support is strong, and campaign aides announced plans for trips this weekend to Tampa, Fla., Kansas City, Mo., Los Angeles and the San Francisco area.
The candidate, who's spending record amounts of money on his presidential bid, also aired a new half-hour commercial late last night called, "Ross, You Bet Your Hat We Can Win," another frothy, non-issue-oriented program in which excerpts from Perot speeches at last Sunday's rallies are interspersed with adoring fans singing his praises and chanting his name.
Meantime, as Perot aides were still trying to deflect continuing questions about the billionaire's tendency to see conspiracy theories and his penchant for hiring private investigators, six former Perot volunteers who say their credit histories were secretly checked by the Perot campaign were to gather in Washington today to hold a press conference.
The six former volunteers, including Lawrence Way and Richard Stover of Frederick, Md., are seeking a criminal investigation of the matter.
Already the U.S. Secret Service, the Federal Trade Commission and a House banking subcommittee are conducting investigations of improper credit and background checks.
Perot campaign officials have admitted hiring investigators to check out some of the volunteers but maintain the activities were legal and conducted to check out allegations of wrongdoing.