Read my lips: the battle's on: Thanks to James Baker, the Bush campaign has sprung into action. Rupert Cornwell looks at its chances of success

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Just possibly, we are in for a cracker of a US election. Barely three weeks ago, that judgement could not have been ventured, as a lacklustre, dispirited George Bush seemed to have ceded victory in advance to a Bill Clinton reborn. How different now, on the eve of the traditional Labour Day start of the campaign proper. The President is still well behind in the polls. But a stirring is to be sensed. Whatever his past mistakes, Mr Bush is not to be written off. And the credit belongs to one man, that reluctant emigre from the State Department to the White House, James Baker.

Like the infamous Andrew in Florida, 'Hurricane James' has ripped through the White House. Since he took over as Mr Bush's Chief of Staff 12 days ago, Mr Baker has already transformed the Republican campaign. Inept top aides such as his predecessor Sam Skinner and former campaign chairman Robert Mosbacher have been kicked upstairs to ceremonial posts (only Mr Bush's loyalty prevented them from being sacked). Suddenly a once forlorn re-election drive has acquired purpose, definition and teeth.

The jarring, counter-productive onslaught on 'family values', which so disfigured the Houston convention, is no more. Vice President Dan Quayle, that dubious electoral asset who was its chief spokesman, has been banished anew to the more familiar role of rallying the conservative faithful of the heartlands. Instead, Mr Baker and the handful of advisers he brought with him to the White House are marketing a new strategy, whereby Mr Bush carries precise messages to specific audiences, reminding them at every turn that he is the man in charge.

The reasoning is obvious. Mr Baker knows full well how implausible it is for his boss, identified with discredited policies of the Eighties, to portray himself as an agent of red-blooded reform. A truly memorable Republican campaign slogan has yet to emerge, but 'A man you can trust in times of change' could do as well as any. The repackaged President is a man who proved his mettle by winning the Cold War and routing Saddam Hussein, a chief executive who in his first term perforce concentrated on foreign affairs, while his domestic initiatives were thwarted by a do-nothing Democratic Congress. Next time around though, he will be free to devote his full attentions to the home front. The buzzword is 'trust'.

No matter that Mr Bush is eminently vulnerable on that score: look no further than his abandonment of the 'No New Taxes' pledge of 1988, or the shameless lies his camp is peddling about Mr Clinton's tax record in Arkansas. But the mere fact of living in a glass house has never prevented a politician from throwing stones. The notion of trust covers every distinction Mr Bush seeks to draw between himself and Mr Clinton. Be it free trade or family values, steadfastness under pressure or simple patriotism, Republicans are saying, George Bush - unlike Bill Clinton - may be relied upon.

Mr Baker has quickly grasped the lessons of Houston: only obliquely in the weeks ahead will the Republicans remind voters of Mr Clinton's alleged straying from the marital bed and his avoidance of service in Vietnam. Rather, they will portray him as a man who ducks hard choices, who will say all things to all men and who changes the colour of his policies with the ease of a chameleon. And the raw material is not lacking. His pronouncements in early 1991 on the merits of the Gulf War were ambiguous, to put it mildly.

Torn between instinctive internationalism and the need to shore up union support, Mr Clinton is humming and hawing on the proposed North American free trade agreement with Mexico. On the more prosaic issue of mileage standards for new cars, he recently contradicted himself flatly before two different audiences in the same day. All is grist for the President's mill. As Mr Bush loves to remind listeners, 'he's been riding the fence so hard he's straddle-sore'. Though his closely watched poll 'negatives' have dropped back below the danger threshold, Mr Clinton has not yet entirely won the trust of his countrymen. Therein lies his biggest weakness.

Thus far the Democratic campaign has been masterly. The Clinton-Gore bus trips have been huge successes, depicting the remarkable synergy between the two running mates, and none too subtly highlighting the difference in stature between Mr Gore the equal partner and Mr Quayle, so rarely seen at Mr Bush's shoulder. Mr Clinton plainly adores campaigning. No longer is he the tedious reciter of slabs of policy. He has claimed not only most of the supporters of Ross Perot, but something of the Perot style too. Deft and pungent, Mr Clinton's oratory has acquired the common touch. Unlike Michael Dukakis four years ago, he instantly responds to every Republican charge. Relentlessly, he paints Mr Bush as a man interested only in the rich, who simply doesn't get it. Fairly or unfairly, however, the image of slipperiness remains.

So much for the contours of the campaign. The battle itself will now be fought out on the chessboard of the electoral college map. Of course, if the Democrats retain their current lead, every gambit will be superfluous. The normal post-Convention surge on which the Republicans pinned their hopes quickly evaporated, and Washington's initially tardy response to hurricane Andrew did not help either. Right now, Mr Bush still trails his rival by 10 or 12 per cent. Four years ago Mr Dukakis was defeated by only eight points, 54 to 46, yet was buried in the electoral college. But if the contest tightens, arithmetic becomes everything.

Grant Mr Clinton the 10 states and the District of Columbia won by Mr Dukakis, plus his native Arkansas, Mr Gore's Tennessee, and most important, California, which looks unwinnable for the Republicans, and he already has 178 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win. Mr Bush, assuming he will carry his adopted home of Texas, the South and South West, the Plains and Rocky Mountain states, and other Republican strongholds, starts from an almost equal base of 180 or so.

In that case, as always seemed likely, the outcome will be decided in the band of big industrial states stretching from the Atlantic to Lake Michigan, the natural habitat of that endangered species, the blue-collar Reagan Democrat. One thing is sure in this fluctuating electoral season: Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, with 99 electoral votes between them, will see scarcely a day between now and November without a candidate on their doorstep. There the underlying dynamic of this campaign - of the status quo versus generational change, or more crudely the devil you know against the devil you don't - will most perfectly be played out.

Working for Mr Bush are his vaunted international expertise, the icy political brain of Mr Baker, and the power of his office. Bill Clinton can make promises. A sitting President - as Mr Bush proved this week by raining dollars on farmers, Florida hurricane victims and defence manufacturers - can make things happen. Maybe, though, a lucky politician may now have run out of that priceless commodity. Despite countless opportunities, Mr Bush has not offered a convincing explanation of why he should be given a second term. But his greatest problem, the economy, is not of his making.

No incumbent in modern times running on his record of growth, an annual average of barely 1 per cent between 1989 and 1992, has ever been re-elected. No upturn in the indicators will rescue him between now and November. Amid the deluge of polls conducted after the Republican convention, one stands out. Almost unanimously, those interviewed said 'real change' was essential. By a margin of nearly four to one, they believed the Democrat was the man to provide it.

'Slick Willie' may yet be nailed by one inconsistency too many. There could be (to borrow the phrase of Mary Matalin, deputy manager of the Bush campaign) a new 'bimbo eruption' or - if this week's stories about how his uncle pulled strings to help Mr Clinton escape the draft stick - fresh holes in his version of events 23 years ago. In short, the 'character' question which almost floored him in the early primaries could ride again in all its tawdry splendour. In an American presidential election, perceptions are all: the first one- to-one candidates' debate, tentatively planned for 22 September, will be more important than ever. But if today's polls are any yardstick, a draw is all Mr Clinton needs. Right now, as the starter's flag formally drops, the race for the White House looks his to lose.

(Photograph omitted)