WASHINGTON -- In February 1992, the glow of the nation's Persian Gulf war victory had faded considerably, but President George Bush maintained a hefty 15-point lead in the polls over an ambitious but scandal-tinged Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton.
Bush's support would eventually plummet, and he would go on to suffer a 5 percentage-point defeat later that year. It's a change of fortune that Clinton fondly recalls as he rallies the Democratic troops behind Vice President Al Gore, his chosen successor, who has trailed his leading Republican rival in the polls for months.
Though Gore's standing in the polls is perilous, Clinton's optimism is not unfounded. Polls at this stage in a presidential campaign reveal quite a bit about the electorate, the depth of support for a candidate, the image he has conveyed, and the weak spots he must overcome, pollsters say.
But "the one thing they don't mean is who people are going to vote for," cautioned Dan Yankelovich, a public opinion expert and author of a new book on public discourse.
True, Clinton led his Republican challenger, Bob Dole, by 10 points in November 1995, just 2 points more than his eventual margin. But such a consistent lead by an eventual winner has been the exception in the past quarter-century.
And Carter's vice president, Walter F. Mondale, had Reagan in a statistical dead-heat a year before the 1984 elections, only to lose by 17 points in a landslide.
Polling for the 2000 election could be even more misleading, because in a time of peace and prosperity, Americans seem uncommonly tuned out to electoral politics, warned Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
In a Pew poll last month, respondents were asked to name a Democratic presidential candidate. Only 46 percent -- and only half of self-described Democrats -- could name Al Gore. Just 13 percent could name Gore's sole rival for the nomination, former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey.
Gore's lead over Bradley continues to slip in national polls, to about 12 percentage points. Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, meanwhile, retains a commanding edge over his rivals for the Republican nomination, and over his potential Democratic opponents.
But the public's hazy impressions of all the major candidates make predictions at this point highly unreliable, pollsters agree.
"The average person is basically not paying any attention," said Tom W. Smith, director of the general social survey conducted by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center.
Add to that the potential wild cards of a popular Reform Party candidate, a calamitous economic downturn or a foreign policy crisis, and there's no telling how the election could be affected. Yankelovich estimated there are three times more voters who don't know whom they will vote for than are willing to acknowledge it to a pollster.
And certain aberrations in the polling results leap out. Kohut noted that current polls indicate that 18 percent of African-Americans plan to vote for Bush -- a figure that Kohut says should elicit skepticism.
"It would be next to a political revolution to have double the number of African-Americans voting for Republicans as is typical," Kohut said. "You can't bank those votes."
Bush's huge lead at this point may have more to do with the public's weariness with Clinton personally than with voters' perceptions of the candidates, said Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.
A desire for a clean break from the Clinton-Gore White House, she said, has pushed a surprisingly large proportion of Democrats toward Bradley and has moved the general electorate toward Bush, whom many see as a logical extension of his solid-citizen father.
In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll released Oct. 11, Clinton's job approval rating remained at a healthy 56 percent. But his personal approval rating was 35 percent.
Voters appear to be looking longingly back to President George Bush as an antidote to scandal, and that is helping his son, the current Republican front-runner. It's no coincidence, one Democratic pollster said, that George W. Bush's popularity mirrors a surge that Gore's pollsters are finding in the approval ratings of former President Bush.
But, Bowman predicted, "I do think that once you have a contest between an Al Gore and a George W., Clinton fatigue should fade, and we'll have a real contest."
For the moment, as snapshots of the electorate, polls can be useful -- especially to the candidates. Gore may take comfort from the public's inattention at this point, but he has serious problems to overcome, in image and voter trust.
"Clearly, the personal feelings toward Al Gore, which had been positive at the beginning of the year, are now negative," said Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster. "That doesn't mean he's going to lose. But it does mean he has serious and difficult problems ahead."
At the same time, Bush is vulnerable to rapid fluctuations in voter opinion, Hart added, precisely because voters know so little about him. Any misstep could be magnified in the electorate's mind, since voters don't know him well enough to place a gaffe into a broader context.
In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro was wildly popular as Mondale's vice presidential running mate, before questions arose about the real estate dealings of her husband, John Zaccaro. With her political record still largely unknown, Hart said, Ferraro's popularity plunged.
Likewise, a change in circumstances beyond Bush's control could hurt his chances against Gore. Though a crisis abroad or a recession typically works against the party in power, voters might be reassured by Gore's long track record in government. Conversely, in such a situation, the Democratic accusation that Bush is a "lightweight" might stick, Democratic pollsters say.
Voters seek integrity
Yankelovich said that in the wake of the impeachment scandal, many voters crave "somebody with a kind of steely integrity" and that Bush does not necessarily fit the mold.
But Bush has created such a strong and appealing first impression with much of the public that he needs only to sustain that perception, rather than change people's minds, as Gore must do.
And in the personality-driven politics of today, Bush occupies the comfortable center, Yankelovich said. In the recent past, the Republican candidate has had to risk alienating moderates in order to court the party's conservative base in the race for the nomination, then tack back to win over the moderate majority in the general election.
In Clinton's Democratic Party, without a powerful liberal wing, the candidate has been able to espouse moderate positions throughout the campaign, Yankelovich said.
But Republicans are so eager to recapture the White House that even their conservative wing has embraced Bush's "compassionate conservative" slogan. Gore, by contrast, has had to meet Bradley's challenge by appealing to the core liberal base of the Democratic Party.
The constant maneuvering by Gore to counter Bradley's insurgency has left voters with the uneasy impression that the vice president tends to adjust his image to try to suit the public -- an ominous sign from an electorate that is tired of the political nature of the Clinton White House.
Meanwhile, Bush's consistently sizable leads in the polls have allowed him to establish a clear public image and to keep it constant. And that factor helps explain his success so far.
"The presidency has always been a very personal vote," Bowman said. "People are not looking at policies on Superfund or the nuclear test ban treaty. They're looking at whether they feel comfortable with these individuals, and that has worked well for George W."