During the last presidential debate at the University of Michigan, the President struggled to land the kind of blow on his front-running challenger which eluded him last week. 'Mr and Mrs America,' the President said, pointing at Governor Clinton. 'When he says we've got to tax the rich, watch your wallet.'
The Democratic candidate responded calmly and precisely that his plan was to relieve taxes on middling Americans and use extra taxes on the wealthy and on foreign companies to invest in the US economy and make it grow. The the focus of the early exchanges on taxation suited the Republicans, who regard the fear of taxes as their best remaining weapon against Mr Clinton. But the Arkansas Governor seemed to be having the best of the argument, stressing that he was a 'job creator not a job destroyer'.
There was also a sharp exchange between the Democrat and the independent candidate, Ross Perot. Mr Clinton pointed to his record of generating jobs and keeping down taxes in Arkansas. Mr Perot said he was born 'five blocks from Arkansas' in Texas and Governor Clinton's record in a small, poor state was 'irrelevant' to the future of America. 'You can't say you ran a small corner store and extrapolate from that, that you could run Wal-Mart. It's irrelevant,' he said.
Governor Clinton shot back that it was 'not irrelevant' to Arkansas people who had gained high-paying jobs in the last 12 years.
A strong performance by the President was essential if he is to start chopping away at his rival's daunting lead in the polls - which if anything has widened yet further after George Bush's lacklustre showing in the first three-cornered television contests.
The latest of them, by ABC television, gives the Arkansas Governor an 18 per cent advantage, while the latest CNN tracking poll puts the Democrat's lead at 19 per cent. A survey by the Scripps-Howard News Service said state polls show Mr Clinton could carry enough states to get 103 more electoral votes than the 270 needed for election. Ominously for the President, Mr Perot is now barely in double digits, meaning his impact on the contest is likely to be minimal.
But even if Mr Bush does start to claw back lost ground (which Republicans maintain their private polls indicate is already happening), he faces an unenviable tactical dilemma. In the first part of last night's debate, he appeared to have decided to avoid the kind of open personal character attacks on Mr Clinton which have proved widely unpopular.
Another good performace last night would put Mr Clinton past that psychological threshold at which, in the eyes of ordinary Americans, a candidate acquires a presidential aura. All he has to do now is avoid complacency and mistakes, or some shattering new 11-hour 'character' disclosure, which the Bush camp gives no sign of having up its sleeve.
Yesterday produced more telltale pointers of the mood - not least a guardedly favourable editorial in the Wall Street Journal, rarely an ally of Democratic aspirants to the White House, about Mr Clinton's economic proposals.