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Clinton 'bounced' as Perot joins the race

Taking a plunge: President rides out new whitewater experience as polls show Republicans catching up after their convention
Ross Perot this weekend won the presidential nomination of his fledgling Reform party, formally stepping into a race for White House that suddenly looks anything but a walk-over for President Bill Clinton.

As the Texas businessman defeated his lone rival, former governor Richard Lamm of Colorado, by a roughly two-to-one margin, a poll by Newsweek puts the Republican contender Bob Dole only 2 per cent behind Mr Clinton - a statistical dead-heat which confirms the boost to Republican spirits and prospects from the hugely successful convention in San Diego.

Trying to keep their euphoria in decent bounds, Republican strategists insist the true margin is probably 5 to 7 per cent. But there is no disputing the impressive "bounce" gained in San Diego by Mr Dole, who had previously trailed Mr Clinton by 20 points or more.

Some reversal of the tide is inevitable with next week's Democratic convention in Chicago. But as he campaigned yesterday in Pittsburgh and Buffalo, New York, the fief of his vice-presidential running mate Jack Kemp, even Mr Dole, never one for over-statement, described the result as "encouraging". For the first time in six months, Republicans genuinely see a chance of victory in November.

Whether they can pull it off depends on two issues: the economic programmes of the two parties, pitting the allure of Mr Dole's $548bn (pounds 360bn) tax- cut package against the steady progress achieved by the Clinton administration in reducing the deficit and creating jobs; and the "character" question, which Republicans cast as a choice between the dependable, honourable Mr Dole and the evasive babyboomer in the White House.

Mr Clinton, who has tabled $11bn of what Democrats insist are responsible tax reductions, this weekend said Mr Dole's plan for a 15 per cent across- the-board tax cut was "excessive and dangerous" - to which the Republican candidate replied that despite the "weak" recovery, wages were stagnating and real family income declining.

But the subtler battle is personal and generational. Mr Dole no longer hides his 73 years, wearing them instead as a badge of wisdom and experience. Mr Clinton turns 50 tomorrow, a landmark celebrated last night with a birthday bash-cum-fundraiser held at Radio City, New York, and broadcast to 80 sites across the country.

In conscious imitation of John F Kennedy's legendary 45th birthday party at Madison Square Garden in 1962, at which Marilyn Monroe crooned a breathy "Happy Birthday, Mr President", singers representing every decade in which Mr Clinton has lived, from Tony Bennett for the 1940s to Shania Twain for the 1990s, will do their stuff. In the process, the party hopes to raise $10m for the Clinton-Gore campaign.

Amid major party conventions and the presidential turning of age, Mr Perot has been driven from the headlines: indeed, the Newsweek poll credits him with only 3 per cent, so feeble a showing that he could be disqualified from this autumn's three presidential debates.

But Mr Perot's popularity almost certainly will start to rise as he re-emerges on to the public stage. He could siphon off votes from both parties. Polls suggest, however, that Republicans would be the biggest losers.

Godfrey Hodgson, page 12