The US Presidential elections: Clinton is almost assured of US presidency

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The Independent Online
THE ELECTORAL noose is around George Bush's neck. Only a disastrous performance by Bill Clinton, the Democratic challenger, in tonight's final presidential debate can prevent the last fortnight of the US election campaign from becoming a death march for the President.

According to both Democrats and increasingly dispirited Republicans, Mr Clinton's plausible performance in last Thursday's debate marked a significant turning point in the campaign.

After three debates in seven days, watched by unusually large audiences, powerful currents and counter-eddies are still working their way through American public opinion. Some polls, including internal Democratic polls, show a tightening of the race. Others, including a Newsweek poll to be published today, show Mr Clinton widening his lead to 15 points.

But even Republican strategists concede privately that the Democrat is now so far ahead as to be almost uncatchable in enough states to put him in the White House. One internal Republican poll gives Clinton near-unassailable leads in north-eastern, mid- western and western states worth 300 electoral college votes - 30 more than he needs to become the first Democrat in the Oval Office for 16 years. The modest surge to Ross Perot, the independent billionaire, after his first comical and caustic debate appearance a week ago, seems to have abated.

Pat Robertson, the archbishop of the Religious Right within the Republican Party, has been urging his followers to pray for divine intervention. He said at the weekend that it would now 'take a miracle' to prevent Bill Clinton from being the next President.

A Penthouse interview with Gennifer Flowers, the woman who last February claimed she had had an affair with Governor Clinton, will be published this week. It contains colourful new descriptions of their alleged relationship. But even Republicans forecast little impact on the campaign. 'It will provide some new lines of inquiry. We can work on them during the first Clinton administration,' said one senior Republican strategist.

Having tried every legitimate and dirty trick to arrest Mr Clinton's progress, there were some signs at the weekend that the Bush campaign might be ready to attempt something new: to talk about the issues that most worry voters. Although assaults by surrogates on Mr Clinton's character will continue, senior Republicans hinted that the Bush campaign - starting with tonight's debate - will concentrate on trying to clarify its own economic programme, while challenging Mr Clinton's.

Senator Phil Gramm, of Texas, who gave the keynote speech at a disastrously negative Republican convention in Houston in August, admitted yesterday that the Bush strategy of personal attacks and distractions had misread the what- about-me mood of the nation.

'If I could go back and refocus the convention,' he said, 'I would put more focus on jobs, opportunity and crime, and more focus on what the Clinton economic programme really is.'

Many Democrats are superstitiously cautious after losing five of the last six presidential elections. But Senator Bill Bradley, of New Jersey, one of the party's senior figures, said yesterday that if Mr Clinton performed well in tonight's debate, he could see no barriers on the road to the White House.

'With 16 days to go, Governor Clinton is getting stronger,' he said. 'President Bush seems to have nothing left.'

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