Dole sinks - as Clinton swoops

Dream Team turns screw on Dark Side
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The Independent Online
Watching President Clinton on the election campaign trail in the deeply conservative South evokes images of "the Dream Team", the US basketball Olympians. With eight days to polling day, victory seems assured. The aim now is to crush the opposition, to establish absolute supremacy.

The difference is that Mr Clinton is not putting on a show, he is not taunting Bob Dole, he is not trying out all his fancy moves. He is playing it presidential, remaining above the fray, leaving it to his fellow team members to entertain the crowd.

Take his trip to Birmingham, Alabama, the first leg on a tour of the South that took him on to Louisiana and Georgia before he returns home to Washington for the birthday of his wife, Hillary. At the Birmingham rally, it was not the president but his sidekick, Senator Howell Heflin, who went on the attack against the Republicans.

Senator Heflin, an ageing bear of a man, who is retiring this year, employed the Republicans' symbol, the elephant, to poke fun at the wobegone Dole campaign. "Listen to the pachyderm herd," he cried, "listen to those thundering sounds of doom! Look at them, engaging in the mud-slinging politics of desperation!"

The crowd of 20,000 howled with laughter, but when the President spoke, it was reverent attention he elicited. Contained, playing well within himself, he listed the achievements of the US economy during his term, he promised everyone "a shot at the American Dream", he invited voters to join him on the bridge to the 21st century.

It was all sunny optimism, tempered by a couple of gentle tut-tuts at Mr Dole for going on the offensive against his character and morals. You don't call people names, Mr Clinton said, affecting the role of the high- minded Southern gentleman. His mother would have "whupped" him if he had ever tried to say he was "better'n anybody else".

It was cleverly calculated stuff. Mr Clinton knows that where he is weakest is, precisely, on the character question: on sleaze in the White House, the dubious Arkansas land deals, the sexual peccadilloes. Thus has he played, with some success, on the US electorate's poll-tested distaste for negative campaigning by chiding Mr Dole's sometimes half-hearted attempts to go on the moral offensive.

Yet, while never stooping to personal attacks against Mr Dole himself, he wins both ways by standing back and letting his cohorts do the dirty work for him. At a rally in Atlanta for example, he sat back and listened to the Mayor, Bill Campbell, rip into his opponent with more venom, if less finesse, than Senator Heflin in Birmingham.

"I like to think of Bill Clinton as the Luke Skywalker of American politics, fighting the dark side with bold new programmes and hope for the future," Mr Campbell said. "And we all know who Darth Vader is: Bob Dole is out of touch, out of steam and out of time!"

Whether the good cop/bad cop campaign technique will have an effect on this week's polls remains to be seen, but the overall figures last week showed that Mr Clinton and Mr Dole were neck and neck across most of the old Confederate South, a prospect which would have seemed inconceivable two years ago, when the Republicans cruised to victory in the mid-term congressional elections.

As recently as June, Mr Dole had declared, in Birmingham, "We're going to sweep the South - everywhere." As recently as a week ago, a spokesman for the Republican Party in Alabama had said Mr Dole would not be visiting the state because "he needs to concentrate on where he is behind".

And then on Thursday, the day Mr Clinton was in Birmingham, Mr Dole made an unscheduled stop in Montgomery, also in Alabama, in what was widely interpreted as an anxious defensive manoeuvre at a time when he needs to concentrate his energies on attack in vote-rich states such as California, Florida and Texas.

Those three states are all on Mr Clinton's itinerary this week, as is Arizona, a traditional Republican redoubt, where he will be striving once more to deepen his challenger's humiliation.