WASHINGTON -- With only 16 days before Election Day, President Clinton and Bob Dole now confront the high-stakes choices that face a national campaign in the sprint to the wire: what to say, where to say it and whether they can help candidates below them on the ticket.
In political parlance, these three considerations are known by three simple words: message, schedule and coattails.
"We have to make decisions all year, but they become crucial at this point in the campaign," says White House political director Douglas B. Sosnik.
"In a political campaign, you're dealing with a fixed amount of time and a fixed amount of money. If you have your candidate spend a day in one state, he can't be in another," Sosnik says.
This weekend, Clinton and his top advisers huddled in the White House deciding where he will go, what his political ads will say and whom they will try to help in the closing days of the campaign.
Yesterday, White House press secretary Mike McCurry said that there were no surprises in Friday night's strategy session. The only new wrinkle was the formulation of a response to the recent flap over campaign contributions to Democrats from foreigners solicited by a former Clinton administration Commerce Department appointee.
To blunt criticism over the questionable contributions from Koreans, Indonesians and other Asians, the Clinton campaign searched Federal Election Commission reports for foreign contributions to Republicans. They found at least one -- a $15,000 contribution from a Canadian firm that the GOP said yesterday it would return.
"This might succeed in making voters mad at the system, but we don't think it will hurt us," McCurry said.
The president also reviewed the state-by-state polling numbers with his campaign staff and agreed to add stops in Georgia and Arizona to his trips to the Sun Belt. "It's the first time in a long time that a Democrat will go places in the last two weeks where it's warm," McCurry quipped.
After Wednesday's debate in San Diego, Dole and his top advisers also huddled. Their decision was two-pronged. First, they decided to keep hammering away at Clinton on the issue of character -- and to use the flap over the Asian campaign contributions as a way to bring the ethics issue home. The second part of their strategy is to attempt to solidify the Republican strength in the South and West -- and to go for broke in California.
The Electoral College ensures that a presidential election is not a national referendum, but 51 elections in which it's winner-take-all, state by state and the District of Columbia. All year, but particularly now, the two candidates are looking at the map, the polls and the political traditions of each state as they decide which states are winnable, which are safe and which are lost causes.
They also must factor in the desire of their political party for the presidential nominees to help out in House or Senate races.
Here is a look at the three broad areas of strategic planning the campaigns are facing:
Clinton's standard stump speech, which is not expected to change, is calculated to appeal to almost every voter.
For social conservatives, he stresses such initiatives as requiring school uniforms, putting more police on the street, expanding use of the death penalty and installing a V-chip in television sets so that parents can block violent programming.
For liberals, the president emphasizes his support for education and environmental protection and how he blocked Republican plans to slow the growth of entitlement or safety net programs from Medicare to school lunches. Sometimes, Clinton defends affirmative action, liberal immigration policies, gay rights and abortion rights.
For moderates, the president stresses his efforts to reduce the federal work force and the federal budget deficit, to promote free trade and high-tech research, and his signing of a sweeping welfare-reform law.
Above all, Clinton highlights the strong performance of the economy since he has been president. "We are on the right track to the 21st century," he says.
Although Dole has campaigned heavily up to now on an extensive tax-cut proposal aimed at energizing the economy, Dole's message in the final days consists of challenging Clinton's rosy economic assessments and his ethics.
To Dole, the economy is underperforming. Wages are still stagnant, he says, and overregulation and overtaxation are burdening small businesses and families.
He proposes a six-point tax cut. The highlights are a 15 percent reduction in personal income taxes, a $500-per-child tax credit for families and a halving of the capital gains tax. Dole's aides want him to emphasize cutting taxes -- and with passion.
They also maintain that attacks on Clinton's character cannot be launched in a vacuum. They don't believe that Dole can simply say Clinton isn't fit to be president. Instead, he must convince voters that Clinton's flaws have a direct impact on issues of concern to everyday Americans.
In other words, when Dole calls Clinton "the great exaggerator," he's trying to tell the voting public to disbelieve the president when he discusses the state of America -- and the president's description of his own role in shaping it.
Likewise, Dole is attempting to use the character issue to bolster his own credibility on larger issues. Polls show that many voters do not believe that they will get a tax cut if Dole is elected president. Dole's insistence that "my word is my bond" is an attempt to change this perception.
"We're going to link these issues of trust and the economy," says Stanford economist John Taylor, a Dole economic adviser. "We want people to see that Dole is a man of his word -- that they really will get a tax cut."
Close presidential elections are decided in a handful of "swing" states, including California, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the big Midwestern states of Ohio, Illinois and Michigan.
Both campaigns know this history as well as the math: With 538 electoral votes at stake, a candidate must carry enough states to get to 270. That's what the scheduling decisions of the next 16 days are all about -- getting to 270.
"Dole needs to pick four or five states -- and just blanket them," says Republican consultant and sometime Dole adviser Frank Luntz. Luntz suggested Ohio, New Jersey, Illinois and Michigan. Instead, after the San Diego debate the Dole camp swiftly announced it was going to challenge in California as well, despite Clinton's 10-point lead in the polls there.
"We take California away from Clinton and he cannot win," said Dole campaign manager Scott Reed.
Unfazed, Clinton strategists say that the polls show that Dole would have to win his Republican "base" of states, almost all the contested states and California to pull out a victory. For that reason, they say, they don't really have to carry California; and if Dole ties himself down there in time and money, Clinton will forage for votes in the battleground states -- as well as conduct forays into Republican country.
This week, Clinton is scheduled to do both. Today, he leaves for campaign rallies in New Jersey and New York. Tomorrow, he is to visit Ohio and Michigan. On Wednesday, he begins two days of campaigning down South.
Ken Khachigian, a prominent California Republican, confirmed last week that one reason Dole is focusing on California is that House Speaker Newt Gingrich asked him to out of concern for Republican fortunes in a half-dozen California House races.
In 1994, Republicans captured control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years, and they did so largely by running against Clinton. This year, Democrats are trying to turn the tables. They have designated Gingrich as the bogyman in every contested House race in the country. A switch of 18 seats in the House would bring Gingrich's brief tenure as speaker to an end. In the Senate, it would take a switch of only three seats to end Republican control.
One Dole adviser said privately that Dole is a proud man who doesn't want to be responsible for costing his party control of the Congress he served in for 35 years. Yet, the only recent
instance where Dole has gone out of his way to campaign for a congressional candidate was in Kansas, where he appeared Friday at a rally for Sam Brownback, the freshman House member who is running for the remainder of Dole's term in the Senate.
Dole has not given up his dreams of the presidency, his aides say, and the rest of the decisions -- even California -- are primarily to help Dole, not other Republicans.
"We wouldn't be competing aggressively in California if we didn't think that we could win it," said Dole campaign general chairman Donald H. Rumsfeld. Dole's presence there might help threatened Republicans, added Khachigian. "But that's just a byproduct."
Even Haley Barbour, the Republican Party chairman, when asked if Dole was going to arrange his schedule to accommodate congressional candidates, gave a blunt answer. "No," he said.
This is one area in which Dole and Clinton might have common ground.
Clinton has enthusiastically plugged local Democrats wherever he goes, but last year, when the unglamorous but important work was being done of recruiting congressional candidates, keeping marginal candidates from running and ensuring that those who did run had the needed resources, Clinton and White House political strategists were largely AWOL.
"I'm sure they'll do more for the [House] candidates in the last two weeks, but until now everything they've done has really been for Clinton," says Rep. Bill Richardson, a New Mexico Democrat.
"Some people say that, but my view is that a rising tide lifts all boats," said White House domestic policy adviser Bruce Reed. "There's no question that if he runs strong it helps other Democrats -- especially in open seats."
Clinton's attitude toward having a Democratic Congress has appeared to be ambivalent. He seemed to function better as president once the Congress turned Republican -- as his aides admit. On the other hand, a Democratic-controlled Congress would certainly mean the end of the myriad congressional investigations into matters such as Whitewater.
Nonetheless, most of the key decisions regarding the president's schedule and message still seem calculated with the number 270 in mind -- as in electoral votes -- and not 18, as in House seats, or three, as in Senate seats.
Asked three days ago why the Clinton team might venture into Texas, Sosnik looked surprised for a moment and answered simply: "To win."
Pub Date: 10/20/96