US Presidential Elections: Clinton's recipe of treacle and venom

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Hurtling from state to state to state in a final, mad effort to protect his lead in the election campaign, Bill Clinton has found a formula that mixes flattery and treacle for the voters with bursts of venom for President Bush.

In what has become a battle over trust, Mr Clinton is wasting no opportunity not just to rebut allegations that he is a man incapable of telling the truth, but to turn the charge back on Mr Bush.

The Arkansas Governor, who will visit up to 10 states this weekend, accuses Mr Bush head-on of dishonesty in his own campaign, and especially in his television advertisements. The President, he told voters in New Jersey, 'has put on ads all over America that are lies . . . the man has no core. The American people see him (Mr Bush) for what he is, a desperate person who just wants to hold on to power.' The new-found aggression in Mr Clinton comes amid signs that the contest is tightening, with polls putting his percentage lead over the President well down in single digits.

Asked by a woman during a phone-in appearance on a New Jersey television station on Thursday night why he referred to his opponent as Mr - instead of President - Bush, Mr Clinton returned fire at claims made hours before by the President that he and his running-mate, Al Gore, were foreign-policy incompetents.

'I'll tell you that he referred to Senator Gore and me as bozos and crazies on foreign policy,' he shot back. 'Maybe it's hard for me because of the way that campaign is operating.' At a rally in Pittsburgh yesterday Mr Clinton again ridiculed the President over his remark about Bozo, a children's television clown. 'Bozo makes people laugh, Bush makes people cry, and America is going to be laughing on Tuesday.' The new bite in the Governor's mood is welcomed by his staff, who say that the shift in the polls will remind supporters that the race is not over. Complacency is the greatest enemy of the campaign, which fears that even California, where Mr Clinton leads comfortably, could slip away if people do not bother to vote.

Clinton aides draw comfort, however, from signs that Tuesday will see a large turn-out, presaged by a huge rise in the numbers who have registered. High turn-out, probably bringing with it unusual participation among minorities, should favour the Governor. It is a factor not being taken into account in the latest polls, which reflect intentions only among those considered certain to vote.

As a demonstration of how Mr Clinton is able to relate to the public and turn them into friends, Thursday evening in Jersey City was vintage. After a speech in the City's courthouse, he emerged to acknowledge a crowd that had jammed the street outside for hours. Basking in their thunderous chanting of 'Four more days' - until his victory on Tuesday - he responded with a slow, Kennedy-esque wave and a brief address promising them a 'new day in America'. As always, he ended by rushing down to shake hands, two steps at a time.

'Think how you will feel if we wake up on 4 November and the paper says 'Four more years' (of President Bush). If you support me, the headlines will read, 'It's a new day in America'. I need your support', he proclaimed.

Most astonishing, though, is his ability in a television studio to turn every question to his advantage and pour flattery on those who ask them. 'That's a terrific question', and 'good for you', are typical openers to his answers. His favourite trick is to answer with a personal anecdote. Take the Jersey City couple who had lost their jobs because their child had a long illness and who felt bitter that legislation to guarantee them paid leave had been spurned by President Bush. 'Will you sign it?' they asked with emotion.

In reply, Mr Clinton related how one morning, after taking a jog in Little Rock and ending up in a McDonald's for a coffee, he had met a couple who had brought their little girl to town for special treatment for cancer. They had lost their jobs too and were living in a homeless shelter.

'Yes, I'll sign it,' he concluded simply and the couple in the back row looked ready to cry.