Keeping The Big Mo Rolling

Here's a problem Bill Clinton didn't dream of having a few weeks ago: how does he keep Big Mo on his side? Though he's still well ahead, the NEWSWEEK Poll shows that he has lost nearly a third of his 27-point post-convention lead over George Bush. One response in Little Rock, Ark., is to lower expectations. "We knew the boost was artificial," said Clinton communications director George Stephanopoulos. Other Clinton insiders are nervous. "The kind of crowds we're getting, the response-it's what you want to see in the final weeks," said one. "You don't expect it in the first few days." Here's how the Clintonites hope to stay ahead-and some of the pitfalls they face:

The Clintonites know the GOP will attack on taxes and crime, two issues that have sent Democrats reeling in recent elections. Clinton wants to define those issues on his own terms first. This week he will travel to New Orleans, the city where Bush made his most famous promise, at the 1988 Republican convention: "Read my lips: no new taxes." Rather than shrink from the T word, Clinton will try to flip the issue to his advantage, accusing Bush of playing the Lord Protector of tax privileges for the rich. Clinton tried the same maneuver on the crime issue. He posed in Houston amid a phalanx of cops to express support for gun control, to remind voters that he supports the death penalty and to attack Bush as a manipulator of a phenomenon the administration hasn't been able to suppress. It's a daring but risky strategy. "If he wants to come at us on that stuff, fine," said one top GOP strategist. "He's got too much history to carry including his own."

Jack Kerouac could be the patron saint of the Clinton campaign. The big crowds and glowing media accounts on the Clinton-Gore buscapade confirmed a strategy the campaign had already decided on: to show off a youthful, energetic ticket eager to engage Americans up close. The campaign considered, and for the time being shelved, a boat trip down the Mississippi-in part because voters on riverbanks can't crowd around the candidates. But there will be more bus trips, perhaps through the Central Valley of California and, again, through the Middle West and upper South-all key battlegrounds. When they aren't on the ground, Clinton and Al Gore will be in the air. Neither man is expected to take time off through Election Day. "It's a message of energy and dynamism," says Clinton media adviser Frank Greer, designed to show up a president who suddenly looks all of his 68 years.

Clinton and his aides vow to stick to their main theme, which Stephanopoulos summarizes as "jobs and George Bush's failures one economic policy." The Clintonites are convinced voters don't trust Bush to provide good jobs and that they yearn for a leader with a "plan" to do so. But Ross Perot's presence as a high-profile kibitzer is a mixed blessing. The Texan's sweeping plan to cut $750 billion from future deficits, already well publicized, makes Clinton's look pallid by comparison.

On the Clinton-Gore buscapade last week, Clinton ad man Greer didn't turn his cameras on until the entourage was west of the Alleghenies. He didn't want footage of New York, New Jersey or even Pennsylvania; he wanted film of what he called "the Heartland-the heart and soul of America." It's peopled by voters who don't get much air time on MTV, but who still constitute the mass of America: white and Protestant. They are voters the Democrats have lost in droves in recent elections, and not just in the Middle West. Clintonites now have reels of visual evidence of the ticket's provisional acceptance by those voters. But Bush will trot out his own Main Street voices and faces this fall, and Clinton will have to convince them he isn't a faux Bubba using them as campaign props.

Campaigns these days are not merely sound bites, but symbols and visual cues projected via television. The Clinton campaign is determined to be the Democrats' first state-of-the-art symbolic campaign. The buscapade was carefully "advanced" to resonate with nostalgic symbols of mainstream American life: flags and balloons, front porches and town squares. Rallies this week in California will showcase more of the same. Inevitably, values questions that dogged him in the primaries. And there's no more damning attack in politics than "the guy's not what he says he is."

The campaign will make forays behind enemy lines, into states most analysts cede to the GOP. Look for multiple drop-bys in Texas-Bush's adopted home state-in particular. Besides posing with cops, not conceding defeat in that key state was the other message of clinton's Houston speech last week.

Ironically, Clinton's tactical approach seems lifted almost in toto from Bush's 1988 campaign-even as Bush himself performs a convincing Michael Dukakis imitation. Using the Bush '88 model may seem odd or worse-to those who recall only its cynical depiction of Willie Horton. But cold-eyed practitioners see that campaign as something else: a handlers' masterpiece. It turned a manner-born mandarin into One of Us, and reduced a highly regarded governor (and Greek immigrants' son) to jelly. Now Clinton claims to be One of Us, his jaw set against a different "Them"-the "very wealthy" who gorged themselves at the feast of the '80s. He isn't eating pork rinds yet, as Bush did in 1988 on his own bus trips through the Heartland. But give Clinton time. It's still only July.