So it's goodbye Ross, and hello Bill: Perot came, saw and withdrew, leaving the race to the pros. John Lichfield writes from New York

THE GRAND old duke of Texas, he spent dollars 10m; he marched his troops to the top of the hill and he took his cheque- book home again. In an extraordinary week, in an extraordinary year in American politics, the US has given itself a double civics lesson in the strength of two despised commodities: political parties and professional politicians.

The amateur saviour, Ross Perot, threw in his monogrammed towel with his first dip in the polls, when politics ceased to be 'fun'; and when the serious bills started to arrive. The professional politician, Bill Clinton, whatever his faults, has fought back from two near-death experiences to a 24-point lead in a New York Times-CBS News poll published in the Times yesterday. The Times said it was the biggest convention boost of any candidate in 50 years of polling.

The second lesson in the year of anti- politics politics is this: the US party convention - though much sneered at, at home and abroad - is alive and well. Governor Clinton looked a larger, and more convincing, figure at the end of the four-day extravaganza in Madison Square Garden. Although his acceptance speech was no oratorical triumph - too long, too cluttered - it pulled off the trick of translating the Arkansas Governor from Elvis lookalike, bed-hopper and draft- dodger to likeable agent of moderate and practical change.

(Clinton's running-mate, Senator Al Gore of Tennessee - looking like Superman in a suit or Clark Kent without the glasses - stole the show with a terrific speech which out-yukked Ronald Reagan in its manipulation of emotion. Gore compared the recovery of his nine-year- old son from a road accident to the recovery of the US economy.)

An important rite of political passage was observed in New York. By the end of the week, one of the six Democratic tadpoles, who started in the murky ponds of the primaries, had become a frog, if not yet a prince. Can Clinton achieve this far trickier evolution, managed by only one Democrat in 24 years, on 3 November?

The first post-Perot poll, taken before the final convention speeches, gave Clinton 56 per cent and George Bush 33 per cent - a far bigger convention 'bounce' than the Democrats had dared dream of. Clinton's own pollster, Stanley Greenberg, said yesterday that the overnight tracking polls showed that 70 per cent of those questioned were now at least thinking about voting for his candidate. A large slice of Perot's support - including the whole of the campaign leadership in New York - has emigrated initially to Clinton. Money is beginning to pour into the Arkansas Governor's campaign in almost embarrassing quantities. A post-convention Clinton reception for wealthy Democrats in New York was supposed to raise dollars 2m ( pounds 1m) and raked in dollars 3m.

How to make sense of all these extraordinary swings of electoral mood? The first, conventional, post-convention piece of advice is to ignore the polls. Four years ago, Michael Dukakis was 17 points ahead of George Bush, a lead which survived for about three weeks. Ragged elements of the Perot army may first choose to pitch camp with Clinton. But Republican thinkers are delighted to find themselves suddenly in a Bush v Clinton campaign. A clutch of states in the South which seemed vulnerable to Clinton and Gore last week no longer looks vulnerable without Perot to gobble up part of the white vote.

The rise of Perot eclipsed Clinton for a while. But it turned out to be a useful eclipse: a time for American forgetfulness to wipe away - temporarily, maybe - doubts about the young Governor. Clinton would have preferred Perot to stay in the race longer. But it was Perot who gave Clinton the opportunity to emerge as a new and viable candidate, with a nearly united party behind him.

New York was a more quarrelsome, noisier, less good-natured, less blindly confident convention than Atlanta in 1988 - more aware of the limitations of its candidate, more anxious, more desperate for success. In 1988 Dukakis went home and governed Massachusetts for nearly two months, returning to find his poll lead gone. This year the Democrats will come out fighting. Clinton and Gore are already touring the Midwest, which is likely to be the crucial battleground with Perot gone.

Perot's departure leaves the Democrats stuck with an all-Southern ticket and no realistic hope of winning more than two or three Southern states (Arkansas, Tennessee and maybe Kentucky). But, nationally and ideologically, it leaves Clinton and Gore on ground they know well - appealing to the middling, swing and suburban vote.

Although some of this year's themes rippled under the surface in 1988 - notably the sense that there was no longer a guarantee of increased prosperity from one generation to the next - the US was still basking in the warmth from the bonfires of debt in the Reagan era. It mainly wanted a president who would symbolise its values; in 1992, by every indication, the US wants a president who will do something about the haemorrhage of middle- class jobs, the federal deficit, health care, US competitiveness and - above all - the political gridlock in Washington.

The tragedy of the now orphaned Perotnistas is that they were no bunch of brainless anti-taxers or racists. They were, mostly, decent, well-educated, muddled, middle-of-the-road people. They projected their own wish-list on to Perot, but were, at root, concerned for the future of their country. To have played with the hopes of such disillusioned but well-intentioned people is a political crime.

There will be those who say that Perot's demise proves his point: the political system is stuck and immune to outside forces. This is nonsense. Perot's support began to melt when he was unable to follow his initial persuasive criticism of the system with any sensible account of how he would change it. Judging by the comments of former senior advisers this week, Perot lost interest in his own cause when it became evident that he could not become president by acclaim and adulation.

Bizarrely, Perot ended the week by talking of resurrecting his insurgent campaign, possibly in the form of a pressure group, or a third political party, or even a 'protest vote' in the presidential election. He said he would call a meeting of all the chairmen of the state Perot for President committees in the next few days to allow grass-roots volunteers to decide what to do next.

Which way will the Perotnistas go now? To Clinton initially, as the only remaining challenger to the status quo. But they are likely to be the softest of supporters, vulnerable to the inevitable assault on the Democratic candidate's record and character.

Further predictions in this odd year are foolish. But here is a reasonably safe bet. The polls are scaring President Bush to death. His old friend, James Baker, will be obliged to leave the State Department - maybe as soon as this week - to assume emergency control of domestic policy and/or the campaign, as he did in 1988.

The scene will then be set for a brutal general election. There are only three and a half months to election day. (Clinton has been on the trail for 10 months.) For all the talk of anti-politics, it has come down to a battle between two tag teams of career politicians: Elvis and Superman versus Bushman and Robin.

(Photograph omitted)


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