WASHINGTON -- His would-be Republican presidential opponents have launched their candidacies on David Letterman, donned flannel shirts to show they are men of the people and milked their announcement speeches by giving them three times.

President Clinton, by contrast, has quietly opened his re-election headquarters in a nondescript office building in downtown Washington without brass bands or balloons.

His critics, and even some friends, find the idea of a separate Clinton campaign headquarters deliciously redundant. After all, this president is famed -- among Democrats and Republicans -- for bringing the "perpetual campaign" to the White House.

During their 28 months in the White House, Mr. Clinton and his aides have shown that they always have at least one eye on the 1996 Electoral College map.

Sometimes, this fixation takes a lighthearted form, as when the president's spokesman, Mike McCurry, was asked for whom Mr. Clinton was rooting in the college basketball championship pitting Mr. Clinton's homestate Arkansas Razorbacks against the Bruins of UCLA. The president was torn, Mr. McCurry quipped, between "the team he loves" and "the team from the state with the greatest number of electoral votes."

But this obsession with re-election is not always so innocent. In March, one of Mr. Clinton's top political advisers was asked the wisdom of the White House welcome to Gerry Adams, leader of the Irish Republican Army's political arm.

"Our polls show that the group we've lost the most support with are Irish Catholics in the Midwest," he replied matter-of-factly.

Even before Mr. Clinton's inauguration, top campaign aide Mickey Kantor called Tony Coelho, a prominent Democrat and fellow Californian, and asked him to be on the lookout during the next four years for California-related issues that would help Mr. Clinton carry the state again in 1996.

This geographical approach to re-election might seem cynical, but it was a breath of fresh air to Democratic National Committee professionals. Before 1992, the party's nominees had never seemed to grasp a simple fact of American civics: A presidential election is not a national popular election. Rather, it's 50 separate elections in each state (plus the District of Columbia) -- and they are winner-take-all.

Some of those who understood the implications of this are not around Mr. Clinton these days. They include former DNC political director Paul Tully, who died; former DNC chief David Wilhelm, who has returned to Chicago; and former party chairman Ronald H. Brown, who is battling ethics allegations as commerce secretary.

Other stars of the '92 campaign are expected to play a role, including pollster Stanley Greenberg; ad man Frank Greer; and the political consultant trio of Paul Begala, Mandy Grunwald and James Carville.

These loyalists are being joined by well-regarded old political pros, like Democratic consultant Bob Squier and pollsters Mark Mellman, Geoffrey Garin and Dick Morris, who usually works for Republican candidates but who has a long association with Mr. Clinton and the confidence of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The first lady is expected to play a key role, as is Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes, who has been mentioned as a possible campaign manager.

Two senior aides under consideration as overall campaign chairman are Mr. Kantor, now the U.S. trade representative, and Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty III, the former White House chief of staff.

Right now, the political operation is being run out of the West Wing and the "Clinton-Gore '96" headquarters is simply a fund-raising operation. Mr. Clinton, hoping to stave off a Democratic primary challenge, is raising money first and plans to hold huge fund-raising dinners next month in Chicago, New Jersey and Arkansas.

There is a single-minded quality to Mr. Clinton's re-election campaign that originates with the president himself, aides say, and it seems to stem from his conviction that the single, best criterion for evaluating the success of a president is whether he served a second term.

Thus, Mr. Clinton and his aides have always bristled at comparisons with the last Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, even though Mr. Carter has been a friend and supporter of Mr. Clinton's and is a fellow former Southern governor.

Conversely, comparisons to Ronald Reagan are perversely welcome -- even though the president did all he could in domestic policy areas to roll back the Reagan Revolution.

This attitude also seems to come from the top of the Clinton White House. Alone among the Democratic contenders in 1992, Mr. Clinton seemed able to separate Mr. Reagan the man from his policies, often expressing admiration for the renewed sense of spirit he helped restore in the American people.

Before he took the oath of office, Mr. Clinton made a pilgrimage to Los Angeles to pay his respects to Mr. Reagan. It was the first of 18 trips to the Golden State, underscoring another article of faith in the Clinton White House: All roads to his re-election begin and end in California.

Its 32 million people translate into 54 electoral votes, exactly one-fifth of the total needed for re-election. Mr. Clinton trounced George Bush out there in 1992, and most plausible strategies for his re-election require him to win there again.

Mr. Clinton and his advisers share several other assumptions. The first is that their base is not the president's home region -- he is notably unpopular among Southern whites -- although he figures to carry Arkansas, and his advisers have convinced themselves that the quadrennially Republican state of Florida could be competitive.

The president's base is the Northeast corridor. Massachusetts lies at one end of this corridor and Maryland -- his second-best state, after Arkansas -- is at the other. In between lies the crown jewel of the East, New York, with its 33 electoral votes.

That means that the battleground figures to be the heartland states of Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Missouri and, on some strategy maps, their eastern cousin Pennsylvania. In Illinois, he tallied almost as many votes as Mr. Bush and Ross Perot together. By contrast, Ohio, where Mr. Clinton prevailed over Mr. Bush 40 percent to 38 percent, was an example of a state that Mr. Perot, by siphoning off votes from Mr. Bush, almost certainly shifted to the Democrats.

Even clearer examples of the Perot factor came in Colorado and Montana, states that Mr. Clinton narrowly won. The president has made it clear to his aides that he'd like to compete there again. Next week, he is giving a commencement address at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, followed by a town meeting in Billings, Mont.

These presidential sojourns to electorally sensitive locales are a source of banter at the White House, sometimes by the president himself.

Last month, Mr. Clinton made one of his frequent trips to California, in which he invariably dispenses federal dollars for one natural disaster or another. When Air Force One touched down at McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento, the president noted with a telling joke that California had made out well in the recent base closings.

"We couldn't very well close this Air Force base," he said. "I wouldn't have had any place to park."

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