WASHINGTON -- With two months left until the November 5 election, it would be foolish to believe that nothing can change the dynamics of the presidential campaign. But at the outset, President Clinton holds such a staggering lead that few professionals in either party would be surprised if he wins a landslide.
Although polls are out of date in some states, the available evidence suggests that Mr. Clinton is leading in 30 states and the District of Columbia with a total of 366 electoral votes, 96 more than needed.
Republican nominee Bob Dole leads or is running essentially even in 20 states with 172 votes.
What may be most threatening to Mr. Dole, however, is the fact that his hold on some of his base appears shaky.
Florida is a case in point. It is impossible to write a scenario for a GOP victory without the state's 25 electoral votes, but the most recent surveys there show the president leading by 12 percent.
Ordinarily Democratic strategists would scoff at that figure and remind one another that Florida always appears more attainable than it ever proves to be on election day. But this time even so hard-headed a politician as Sen. Bob Graham has been telling the White House that prospects are realistic enough that the state is worth a heavy investment of campaign money.
The difference this year, some experts on Florida say, is that the perception that the Republicans in Congress plan to cut Medicare benefits has energized the state's huge senior population.
Texas, with a prize of 32 electoral votes, is another intriguing situation. By all estimates, this is the single best state for Republicans among the 10 largest. A poll there last month showed Senator Dole leading Mr. Clinton by eight points.
Political prudence would dictate that the Clinton campaign forget about Texas rather than wasting its treasure on the state's 24 media markets. And that is probably what the Democrats will decide to do in the end.
But some veterans of Texas politics are pointing to a new factor in the political arithmetic. Victor Morales, a Mexican-American teacher and political neophyte, is running for the Senate against Republican Phil Gramm. Although Mr. Gramm is leading by a comfortable 15-point margin, some professionals are intrigued by the potential turnout among Hispanic voters now that they have one of their own at the head of the ticket for the first time.
Should the Hispanic vote reach one-fourth of the total, it might be enough to make President Clinton competitive. It isn't likely, but the fact that there is such speculation is a measure of how weak Senator Dole is perceived to be.
The more critical problem for the Republicans is their weakness in the industrial belt from Illinois east through Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. If it is assumed that Mr. Dole holds Texas and Florida and that Mr. Clinton wins California and New York, these five states with a total of 99 electoral votes become the decisive battleground.
Senator Dole would need three of the five and perhaps four to reach the 270 electoral votes required. Yet today he trails in all five by double-digit margins. And there appears to be no issue for the Republicans to exploit in states that are enjoying relative economic health.
Nor is his position in the South as strong as Republicans had hoped and expected. Mr. Clinton broke the GOP "lock" on the region in 1992, carrying Georgia, Louisiana, Tennessee and Kentucky as well as his native Arkansas. But six months ago he seemed likely to hold only Arkansas.
By contrast, current polls and estimates by political operatives rate the president at least a nominal favorite in all these states except Kentucky. Indeed, his position is so strong at the moment that there is growing optimism among Democrats that his margin might allow them to win back control of the House of Representatives, where they need a net gain of 20 seats to send Speaker Newt Gingrich back to relative obscurity.
The most cautious Democrats are reminding one another that Michael S. Dukakis held an even larger margin over George Bush in 1988 and frittered it away. But Bill Clinton is a known quantity who can hardly be demonized by the opposition as the Massachusetts governor was that year.
Mr. Clinton can still blunder it away, in theory at least. But as the opening gun sounds for the general election campaign, he appears positioned for a runaway.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 9/06/96