TOLEDO, Ohio -- Down to the very end, Democratic nominee Bill Clinton is adhering to the basic strategy that has marked his long campaign: Never let an attack go unanswered and, if possible, turn the attack onto the attacker.
This approach, which saw Clinton through some of the toughest periods of his campaign this year, is marking his windup on the stump as President Bush attempts to drive home the issue of trust against him as the best hope to salvage his own re-election.
The core of the president's attack is that the Arkansas governor has neither the experience nor the trustworthiness to be counted on to make life-and-death decisions in the Oval Office. He accuses Clinton of "waffling" on everything from why he didn't serve in the military during the Vietnam War to where he really stood on the Persian Gulf War.
Clinton is responding in these closing days of the campaign by telling voters that Bush is the one who can't be trusted, starting with his 1980 criticism of Ronald Reagan's economic program as "voodoo economics" and his subsequent embrace of it, to his 1988 read-my-lips pledge not to raise taxes and subsequent abandonment of it.
The latest ammunition seized by Clinton is a New Yorker interview in which former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev says Bush told him "not to pay any attention to what he would say during the presidential campaign" taking credit for the end of the Cold War.
"He's telling foreign leaders the truth, but he won't tell you the truth," Clinton told a rally in Jackson, Miss.
"Trust" is considered by the Bush campaign to be Clinton's Achilles' heel in the closing days of the race. But Clinton aides say the Gorbachev interview, and a series of radio ads being run by the Bush campaign in the South that they call grossly misleading, have given the Arkansas governor timely means to counter the Bush attacks on "trust."
Clinton also uses, with obvious relish, the story of Bush administration officials rummaging through old Passport Bureau files looking for damaging material regarding his trip to Moscow as a graduate student 23 years ago "and trying to dig up some dirt on my momma."
He relates the story with an air of bemusement that draws laughs from his crowds, then he adds: "Folks, we're laughing at this, but it's not funny." When Bush hecklers start chanting, he tells his backers to let them have their fun, because time is running out on their candidate. And he quotes Lucy in the "Peanuts" comic strip: "If you can't be right, be wrong as loud as you can."
As Clinton has stepped up his counterattack on trust, he has sought at the same time to cast himself merely as a candidate responding to the negative tactics of his opponent, and not as an initiator of such tactics. In doing so, aides acknowledge, he is keeping in mind the public revulsion this year to "going negative," as best demonstrated in the second presidential debate in Richmond, Va., when voter-questioners scolded the candidates for taking the low road rather than addressing the issues affecting their lives.
Clinton regularly tells listeners that George Bush ran one of the most negative campaigns in modern times against Michael Dukakis in 1988 and charges that he is outdoing himself this year -- although the Bush campaign has done nothing to approach its notorious Willie Horton prison-furlough attacks of 1988.
The Democratic nominee in these closing days also is counterpunching on the other prime issue being raised by Bush -- the Arkansas governor's record in his own state. The president paints a picture of pollution and neglect, and Clinton replies with a flood of statistics claiming to make Arkansas a leader in job creation and promise for its relatively poor population.
In a lively rally in Louisville, Ky., the other night, Clinton reeled off a chronicle of what he called distortions and lies from Bush and concluded: "The idea that the word trust could ever come out of Bush's mouth is a travesty."
The Clinton campaign hopes that Bush, in continuing his focus on the issue of trust right up to Election Day, will only remind voters of their aversion to personal attacks -- and give their candidate license to answer them, while appearing to stay on the high road himself.