At the start of a single-day campaign swing through all six states which border Arkansas, President Bush let loose a barrage of selective statistics. These purported to show that not only is Arkansas one of the poorest states in the country (a fact no one disputes) but that in every area - from the environment to crime, taxation, and even Bill Clinton's special field ofeducation - it had grown poorer under the Governor's 12-year stewardship.
'Our country's future is literally on the line,' thundered Mr Bush in Springfield, Missouri, 'but this man has the gall to go around America and promise the moon, when on issue after issue the sky has fallen in in his own backyard.'
Arkansas deserved better, he said, 'and America deserved better'.
The President had long been expected to open an 'Arkansas front' to bolster his struggling campaign, and the state's 2.5 million people have been bracing for it ever since the drumroll of attacks on Mr Clinton as the 'failed
Governor of an impoverished state' at the Republican Convention last month. Never, though, has it looked more necessary.
For all the spicy Bush rhetoric, the harsh fact remains that if current polls are half-way accurate, he needs little short of a miracle to turn things around in the six weeks before election day.
A Washington Post survey yesterday put the Arkansas Governor an astonishing 21 points ahead among likely voters nationwide.
White House officials disputed the finding, but recently-published polls covering key states offer no solace:
In Illinois Mr Bush trails by 19 points; in Ohio, which has an uncanny knack of going with the winner, he is 10 points behind.
In Missouri and Kentucky, the deficits are 21 and 13 points.
In the normally Republican strongholds of Florida and Indiana, Governor Clinton is running dead level.
Even the possible re-entry into the race of Ross Perot is unlikely to help greatly. Yesterday the Texan billionaire muddied the waters further by declaring he had 'in retrospect made a mistake' by pulling out last July. Mr Perot is on the ballot in all 50 states. He told CBS television that his volunteer supporters would meet this week to decide whether he should declare his formal candidacy.
Mr Perot's latent support looks to be anything from 10 to 18 per cent. The Post gives him 12 per cent, but even in a three-way contest, Mr Clinton holds a 50-31 lead over the President.
Nor is the timing of the Arkansas offensive an accident. Yesterday was to have seen the first presidential debate of the season in East Lansing, Michigan.
The Bush camp ducked out of it however, insisting that the single moderator format proposed by the bi-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates had to be changed.
To underline the Democrats' insistence that his opponent is running scared of a direct confrontation, Mr Clinton appeared as promised in East Lansing, and was fielding questions last night in a live television 'town hall' debate, at the very moment the 'presidential' debate was to have taken place.
Mr Clinton has perceptibly altered the style of his campaign. As clear frontrunner, his concern is to protect his lead and make no mistake which might offer Mr Bush an opening. His speeches dwell almost exclusively on the economy - where Mr Bush is at his most vulnerable - and a once accessible candidate is now sealed off from the media, not least to avoid further questioning about his Vietnam draft record.Reuse content