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Bush struggles to dent Clinton's lead

DESPITE a spirited fightback on the hustings, the utterly separate issues of taxation and the aftermath of the hurricane in Florida are combining to hinder President George Bush as he struggles to make inroads into the substantial early lead still enjoyed by his Democratic opponent, Governor Bill Clinton.

As a no-holds-barred campaign for the November election moves into its second week, Mr Bush is clearly benefiting from James Baker's firm hand at the helm of the White House re-election operation. Gone is the disastrous indecision of the spring and summer. Now the President is focusing his counter-attack on specific targets, such as trade and jobs, and playing his strongest card of foreign policy and security expertise for all it is worth.

Thus far, however, the renewed sense of purpose has not showed up in the polls. Two more published this weekend, by Time/CNN and Newsweek still have Mr Clinton ahead by 6 and 10 points respectively. The deficit is all the more worrying for the Republicans in that, after the counter-productive posturing over 'family values' following the Houston convention, the campaign is now starting to focus on the economy, the issue that almost certainly will settle matters on 3 November.

And every sign is that the Republican attempt to portray Mr Clinton as a man who believes higher taxes are the answer to every problem is backfiring. In the last few days the Clinton camp has been forced on the defensive as it furiously rebuts charges that he raised taxes 128 times in his 12 years as Governor of Arkansas. But the patent untruth of the accusations has only cast doubt on the sincerity of Mr Bush's own pledges to make across-the-board tax cuts in a second term.

At a White House briefing last week he refused to give details of what he had in mind. Interviewed on CBS television yesterday, the Vice-President, Dan Quayle, also floundered when pressed on the point, unable to say either how large the tax cuts would be, nor how the money would be found to pay for them.

Perhaps more unfairly, Mr Bush may end up as the scapegoat for the delay in federal aid to clear up the devastation in southern Florida in the wake of Hurricane Andrew. Mr Clinton and his advisers have carefully stopped short of criticising Mr Bush in person, urging instead a 'non-political' inquiry into the bureaucratic problems that held up the relief effort.

But for all the restraint, the outcry is likely to work to Mr Bush's disadvantage. Why, it is asked, cannot Florida, home of the military command which two years ago tackled the first consequences of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, benefit from a similar emergency response to a calamity in its own backyard?

Once again, Republicans fear, the impression will be created of an administration far more interested in foreign than domestic affairs. To prove the truth is otherwise, Mr Bush was forced to cancel a planned campaign swing to the crucial state of California, and hold an unusual White House press conference on Saturday to announce further aid measures.