US election rivals roar into final straight

AS LABOR DAY yesterday marked the official start of the US presidential campaign, which has in fact been in high gear for several months, both candidates tore into the final straight with rallies in crucial states.

In set-piece Labor Day speeches, President Bush and Bill Clinton drove home their campaign themes to supporters in the unnerving knowledge that the next 56 days, until the 3 November poll, are likely to produce the fiercest White House contest in over a decade. Although most recent opinion polls show a slight narrowing of Mr Clinton's lead over the President, he still remains on average about 10 points ahead. The latest, a poll for NBC television, showed the Arkansas Governor with 49 per cent and Mr Bush with 40 per cent. The same poll recorded 10 per cent of respondents as undecided. Only as election day approaches, and Americans end their holidays and take notice again of politics, will each candidate's support begin to solidify.

Setting a frenzied pace, Mr Bush has visited seven states in three days, including Michigan, Illinois, Kentucky and North Carolina, all likely to be critical in November. Mr Clinton's main appearance yesterday was in Independence, Missouri, home of former president Harry Truman, whose comeback in 1948 has been adopted by Mr Bush as his campaign inspiration.

The next campaign milestone is likely to be the first of three face-to-face television debates between the candidates, scheduled for 22 September. Two more debates are expected to follow in October. In the final two or three weeks of the race, both camps will let loose with multi-million-dollar television advertising campaigns.

There is still room for the unexpected. Democrats wonder privately whether more skeletons lurk in Mr Clinton's character cupboard and the administration could yet pull a policy sensation, such as a renewed campaign against Iraq. Barring the unpredictable, however, the main strategy lines of each camp are now easily discernible. The common target is the soft middle of the electorate, voters who are Democrat in their hearts but recent Republican voters.

The best hope for Mr Bush, who seems unable to overcome the collapse in his popularity, must be to stir doubt about Mr Clinton and his leadership credentials. 'Who can you trust?' is already a well- worked refrain of his campaign.

Most crucially, he must reverse the steep upward trend in the numbers who say they have a favourable view of Mr Clinton. The mantra for the Clinton campaign, meanwhile, remains that of 'change'. Mr Clinton offers his audiences any amount of statistical evidence that they are worse off than they were 12 years ago and that only a Democrat president can reverse the decline. And with his running-mate, Al Gore, of Tennessee, he has the advantage of youth to underline the change message.

The inescapable issue will be the economy and jobs. Mr Bush, whose hopes for a strong pre-election recovery have not been fulfilled, will try to deflect criticism, notably by painting Mr Clinton as a tax-and-spend Democrat. Mr Clinton, meanwhile, will have the easier task of pointing to the country's economic travails and promoting his own programme of tax-increases for the rich and big business to finance public investment in training and job-creation.