AT 7 O'CLOCK ONE LATE SEPTEMBER EVENING, a senior staffer at Bush-Quayle headquarters looked up from his paperwork and saw his boss, Bob Teeter, looming in the doorway. There was no point asking if he had come with good news, since there never was any. The president was 13 points behind Bill Clinton in the campaign's polling, and their computer maps appeared to have been colored in by a child whose blue-for-Bush Crayola had long since got lost. The landscape of America was practically all Clinton red, 397 electoral votes' worth, and the deepening gloom had begun to infect Bush's own family.

The staff man awaited his orders.

"Find me something," Teeter said.

"What?" the staffer said.

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"Find me something that will win the election," Teeter said, smiling wanly and walking away.

The something they were looking for, by that stage, was the silver bullet that would bring down Clinton; it was a given among Bush's men that he was not going to win a second term with advertisements for himself. He had spent a year shuffling identities like a pack of cards, from Lion of the Desert to Man With a Plan to Archdeacon of Family Values to Son of Harry Truman to Man With Another Plan, and none of them had worked. Neither had his renomination in Houston, which had brought him only a faint and fleeting bounce. His job rating was near Jimmy Carter's low, and he seemed frozen at or around 40 percent of the vote in what was then a two-way race with Clinton. "We're stuck," Jim Baker had told a friend in mid-September. "Nothing's happening. It's stagnant out there."

The Fabulous Baker Boys had tried fixing Bush, if only as a prelude to his going nuclear against Clinton. The elixir for his revival was to have been a speech to the Economic Club of Detroit, an attempt to achieve a coherence of thought and purpose that had failed him at the convention. In preparation, Dick Darman and Bob Zoellick swept together all his old economic initiatives and added a couple of new ones. They intended to call the repackaging a "plan," but focus groups hooted at the word, partly because they thought Bush incapable of having one. The plan accordingly became an Agenda for American Renewal, which sounded more like something that might actually happen.

The work, this time, was skillfully done and well reviewed, the best case yet for Bush's latter-day laissez-faire economics. Afterward, it was bound up into a handsome blue booklet, so he would have a policy blueprint to wave around like everybody else in the get-serious politics of 1992. But the impact was minimal-a three-point bump in his credibility as chief steward of the economy. Bush was, an aide said, like a repentant womanizer coming home to his wife after a long absence: "She doesn't want to hear that he's going to do better-she just wants to know where the hell he's been for the last three years."

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Neither did it help when, after months of pressure, the president finally agreed to dump his beleaguered first-term economic team and to draft a reluctant Baker as his domestic-policy czar. The troika in place-Nick Brady at Treasury, Dick Darman in the budget directorate and Michael Boskin as house economist-had been under unremitting attack since the 1990 tax rise. But Bush was, as usual, resistant to abandoning his people under fire. He did plan to bring in new faces if he won, he told a visitor, but not yet; he didn't want to hurt anybody's reputation if he didn't have to.

With his situation souring from bad to dire, his people concluded that he could wait no longer and began agitating for a housecleaning. What Teeter proposed was that Bush collect letters of resignation from all three and then announce the whole package-their second-term departure and Baker's reassignment-as a springboard into the first debate. Baker liked the first part; he had been Darman's friend and protector for years but was perfectly willing to make a human sacrifice of him. He was less enthused with his own new role; he would give it one year, tops, he told intimates, and then go back to his old job at State.

The roadblock to the plan was Bush; he dithered even when Darman starred in a Washington Post series as a lonely hero among the bumblers who had fashioned Bush's economic policies. A colleague called the chronicle Dick's letter of resignation, whether he meant it that way or not, and the president's sons George W. and Jeb told their father that Darman had to go. But he seemed more bewildered than angry at Darman's indiscretion, and Nick Brady was an old and close friend; not even Baker as designated point man for the plotters could persuade him to sack them publicly.

He hesitated, and a moment was lost. There was no pre-debate announcement, no wave of headlines for Bush to ride into his first encounter with his rivals. Instead, he alluded to Baker's new portfolio fleetingly during the rat-a-tat of argument and neglected to mention the fate of the old crowd at all; their departure had to be explained by aides in backgrounders the next day, muffling whatever impact it might have had. A Baker speech on his own ascension to czardom was promised, postponed and finally scrubbed; there was no way for him to give it without reinforcing the impression that Bush had had to ring in his friend as copresident.

The gambit, like practically everything else Bush and his people set their hands to, was prey to the exhaustion of a presidency near collapse. His foreign-policy apparatus was pinned down defending its sometimes cuddly past relations with Iran and Iraq. His law-enforcement and intelligence agencies were at war with one another. His response time was tested by a hurricane named Andrew and, fairly or not, was found wanting. His re-election team floated new themes one day and withdrew them the next, at the first puff of flak. Family Values was an early casualty, to Dan Quayle's great annoyance. "When they write the history of this bleeping campaign," he said on being pressured to drop the subject, "they'll say the fundamental flaw was that it backed down on everything."

In fact, the values issue had been one more loser in the search for a rationale for Bush's re-election-some reason to vote for him in spite of the dolorous state of the economy. "It's costing us points," Teeter complained, but nothing they tried in its place was winning points, either. By fall, the Bush presidency was running intellectually on empty, with nothing left to say for itself, on the evidence of his record and the conduct of his campaign, one of his own senior aides said, the president didn't deserve to win.

And so it was Midnight Again in America-a second Bush campaign built on the strategic premise that there was no way to elect him except by destroying his rival. In the early planning, it was to have begun with an attempt at rehabilitating the president at least enough to make him credible when the mudslinging began; the subsequent attack on Clinton would proceed from his record in Arkansas to the riskiness of his policies and finally to his character. But the foundation crumbled with the realization that, as one high-level strategist conceded, there was no way to change America's perception of Bush as a failure. The effort to make him look good was thereupon all but abandoned in favor of the effort to make Clinton look even worse.

The fall thus became what a senior hand called "sledgehammer time"-a 100 percent negative air-and-ground war aimed at reframing Clinton as a taxer, a spender, a liberal, a liar, a coward and, in its shabbiest moments, a possible Soviet sympathizer. In the campaign's formative days, two aides to Britain's recently reelected prime minister, John Major, were invited to Bush-Quayle headquarters to tell how they had won with a weak candidate, a sickly economy and an electorate clamoring for change. The short answer was, by relentless daily attack on the Labor opposition-an assault built, as Bush's own would be, on the twin issues of taxes and trust.

Their ideas matched what Bush's own command was thinking: that, merely to get competitive, they had to bump Clinton's negative ratings up five points or so and hope for a matching rise in Bush's positives simply by comparison. But getting the media attack airborne was slowed by the chronic muddle in the president's command center; it was the equivalent of his having sent his legions to the Persian Gulf in outrigger canoes. As early as spring, the pros on his advertising team slipped into Manhattan for a quiet dinner with the retired rapmaster of politics, Roger Ailes, at the New York Athletic Club.

"I'm not coming back, but I don't like seeing what's happening," Ailes told them.

Neither did they, which was why they had sought his counsel. They were gung-ho for going negative against Clinton sooner rather than later. But the November Company, the ad hoc Madison Avenue agency actually assigned to make the ads, was slow-in-house wags called it the December Company-green and squeamish, and Bob Teeter was hopelessly ambivalent; it would be said of him by a colleague that his epitaph should read LET'S MEET AGAIN. There was no organization, no direction, the pros complained. Nothing was getting done.

"They'll ignore you until the convention," Ailes said. "Then they'll panic and come to you. What you need to do is get a budget, don't tell anybody what you're doing, and get eight or nine attack ads in the can so you're ready when the suits panic."

The pros tried the master's recipe. It didn't work. Let's wait, Teeter and Fred Malek told them, tabling their budget request. Their spots never got made.

The Ad Alley crowd fared even worse; they were only too obviously proceeding without guidance, and some of their earliest efforts had been risible or worse. Their scripts were amateurish, their "facts" often fictitious. One proposed positive ad had Bush holding up the 1993 budget book, declaring that it was his domestic policy; the responses included a muffled giggle, a stifled groan and a quick change of subject.

The problem was only partly their inexperience at politics; the campaign Was prisoner to its own unbelief that Bush could lose to a man as flawed as Clinton and so was slow figuring out what to do. At one point, they turned over their polling data to two academic consultants-experts in the black-box art of making products more appealing to consumers-and assembled the ad team in the November Company's conference room for a presentation on the reselling of the president.

The results were discouraging. It wouldn't be enough merely to bash Clinton, they said, nor could the president compete with him on public policy. "Forget the issues," one of the dons said in a vaguely Kissingerian accent. "There is no way to fix the issues. They hate him on the issues." The key, said the pair, was to raise what they called Bush's Satisfaction Index-making America somehow feel better about him. The pros at the table exchanged glances over their half-eaten sandwiches; one thought he had just heard why the president was going to lose.

Baker, sensing trouble, put his own back-channel call to Ailes in the late summer and asked for advice.

"Politics is execution," Ailes told Baker. "Get off the bleeping defensive, and get some ads on the air."

Even in the new order, execution was more easily and more lengthily talked about than done; a Labor Day meeting droned on for six hours and wound up without a single negative spot having been commissioned. The flow of ads, once they did start moving, was impeded by quibbles over production detail and by a more serious post-Willie Horton syndrome-a morbid fear of getting caught crossing lines of ethics and taste. One particularly raw ad took off from a Time magazine cover, a sinister photonegative portrait of Clinton with a headline promising to tell why people didn't trust him. Two hours before the high command signed off, a senior adman observed, "If it runs, you'll know we're in pretty desperate shape." It ran, but only briefly; when Time sued and the press tut-tutted, the spot came down.

What none of the ads seemed to do was narrow Clinton's double-digit lead in the polls. The search for the silver bullet accordingly escalated from wish to obsession, and the spoor kept leading back to Clinton's escape from the war in Vietnam. Only 10 percent of the public, in the campaign's polling, cared seriously about it, far below the 40 percent threshold for a strong attack issue or the 50-plus negative ratings Bush was drawing for his management of the economy. But the hawks on 15th Street, Charlie Black foremost among them, had argued for months that the draft question was potentially deadly for Clinton-in the South because he had ducked out on a war and everywhere else because of his ever-shifting accounts of how he had done so.

The issue to be drawn, in their view, was character-whether so slippery-seeming a man could be trusted to run the country. Black and his comrades led a charge to have Bush himself go after Clinton frontally at a convention of the National Guard Association in Salt Lake City in September. Bush was tempted; in private conversation, he railed at Clinton as draft dodger and wondered how on earth such a man could even think of being president. The doves, this time, hosed him down, but the hawks were content to wait. The issue was a low-grade fever, Black said, and it was going to get hotter for Clinton; there were too many questions the guy couldn't or wouldn't answer.

Bush and his surrogates did begin raising the Trust Question thereafter, knocking a first few chips out of Clinton's repainted portrait. But the new line took an achingly long time even to begin sinking in. For one thing, the word trust itself, coming from Bush, had a boomerang effect in focus groups; they didn't trust Clinton's word or Bush's performance. Bush's prompters, without quite telling him why, suggested gently that he make the issue "truth" instead of "trust." The substitution was made for a time, to minimal effect. Clinton's unfavorable rating did rise a few points. The problem was that Bush's did, too.

With his polls looking terminal, the quest for the killer issue took on an air of desperation. Most tantalizing of all was the rumor that Clinton, in extremis, had contemplated giving up his citizenship to escape the draft, and Bush's men pursued it down a bizarre succession of byways. There was, for example, the embarrassing discovery that some of Jim Baker's old political appointees at State had made a frantic search not only of Clinton's passport records but of his mother's. The only resulting dirt was what they left behind: their own and, by distant proxy, the president's fingerprints.

When all else failed, Bush engineered an attempt to paint Clinton as having been a pawn of the Soviet Union in his days as a student antiwar activist at Oxford-a charge of a sort unheard in presidential politics since the Red-baiting heyday of Joe McCarthy. The single supporting prop for the fantasy was that Clinton had toured Moscow, among other European cities, during his Christmas break in 1969-70. In a series of afterhours speeches, Rep. Robert Dornan of California, a fantast of the far right, spun this into a picture of Clinton as a real-life Manchurian Candidate-a man who had prepped for polities under the KGB. McCarthy himself might have demanded a slightly higher standard of evidence; for a time, nobody seemed to be listening.

But Roger Ailes was-and, in a speakerphone tirade to Jim Baker's command group in early October, he urged pursuing the issue. "Go for the red meat," he bellowed. "Get on the bleeping offensive!" What was Clinton doing in Moscow anyway? Ailes didn't pretend to know, but he had his suspicions, reinforced by Clinton's own vagueness about where he had gone and whom he had seen. "This guy's hiding something," Ailes said. "Nobody's that forgetful."

The group was intrigued, and so was Bush when he received Dornan and three similarly inflamed colleagues in the Oval Office two days later. Clinton was a traitor, they said, and it was Bush's duty to go after him; if Lyndon Johnson were president, the relevant CIA files would already be on his desk. Bush replied tartly that he wasn't LBJ. But he instructed his people to meet with Dornan that afternoon to see if he had anything on Clinton besides his own vivid imaginings.

He didn't, as Bush's team reported afterward. They preferred leaving the question of Clinton's patriotism alone and continuing the assault on his credibility instead-this round on his conflicting accounts of his antiwar activities. But in an appearance on Larry King the next night, the president hinted darkly that there had been something sinister in the Moscow trip-"I don't want to tell you what I really think," he said-and connected it with Clinton's having demonstrated "against his own country" on foreign soil. Aides winced. The president, one said, had screwed up; by raising the Red flag, he had strayed from the real questions about Clinton's character and raised a three-day storm about his own.

THERE WEREN'T THAT MANY DAYS LEFT, and with the president going into training for the debates, he was about to blow 10 more. Jim Baker had started the season wishing they didn't have to do any debates at all; the media, in his view, would judge Bush the loser no matter how well he did, and Clinton would grow in stature just by being onstage. But the form had got institutionalized over the 32 years since Kennedy met Nixon on a sound stage, and the last president to duck a debate, Jimmy Carter in 1980, had paid for it dearly. Bush himself guessed over lunch with his top hands just after Labor Day that the show would go on and that he would do pretty well; all that seemed to trouble him was Clinton's reputation as a kind of walking World Almanac.

"I'm not gonna memorize all those statistics," he said.

"You don't have to," an aide reassured him. "It's more important for you to be dignified and presidential."

Resistance gave way thereafter to a delaying action, an excess of rigidity over the number, timing and format of the encounters. Baker wanted two debates-no more, no less-and preferred that they be as late in the season as possible; Bush needed time to bloody Clinton first, so the challenger would be on the defensive from the moment he climbed into the ring. The demands made some tactical sense, but as September dragged on without an agreement, Bush began to look as if he were afraid to debate. Demonstrators were showing up at his rallies in chicken costumes, and Clinton ran the old empty-chair game, showing up at the site of the first scheduled debate in East Lansing, Mich., to wait for Bush. A suggestion by Quayle's man Bill Kristol that the president put in a surprise appearance in his Air Force One flight jacket was ignored by his betters, and Clinton had the photo op to himself.

By the end of the month, Baker, practically alone, was fighting the inevitable. "I'm tired of looking like a wimp," Bush complained, and the more chicken suits he saw, the more irritable he got. His crowds were great, he complained to Baker one day, calling in from a whistle-stop tour of the Midwest, but his numbers were still lousy; the debate over debates was drowning out his daily assault and battery on Clinton.

"We've gotta get something going," he said. "Why can't we come up with something?"

His suggestion was that they up the ante, challenging Clinton to more debates than were on the table. Baker still wasn't sure. But Bob Teeter was, and when the command group met near the end of September, worrying the subject one more time without real movement, he lingered afterward for drinks alone with Baker. They had been counting on the race getting tighter after the convention, Teeter said, but it hadn't; Bush was at stall speed, and Clintons support, if anything, was hardening. The status quo was death, politically speaking. They had to do something to change the dynamic before it was too late.

Baker mentioned Bush's idea about doing a whole raft of debates.

Teeter liked it, and so, finally, did Baker. It was a way to reclaim the moral high ground from Clinton and, if Bush was on his game during the debates, to rough him up as well; if they ever got the guy on the run, Teeter believed, he might just fall apart.

Next morning Bob Teeter asked Fred Steeper if the numbers had moved.

"No," Steeper said.

George W. Bush winced.

"Should we throw a long ball?" Teeter asked.

"What's the long ball?"

"Six debates," Teeter said.

"Sounds good to me," Steeper said. "We're behind. Let's do it."

Within 48 hours Bush sprang his surprise, daring Clinton to debate him every Sunday from Oct. 11 to Nov. 1. The schedule would be reshaped in negotiations. But the gridlock was broken, the chicken suits disappeared and the president had the last word: "Let's get it on."

Watching Bush's speech on CNN, Teeter quietly remarked to an aide, "This is either gonna win it for us or sink us."

The question weighing heavily on his team was whether it mattered-whether anything he said or did could change the red tide spreading across their computer maps to Bush blue. In the latest of a series of memos to his admirers, Richard Nixon guessed near the end of September that Clinton was leading in 28 states with 329 electoral votes, 59 more than he needed to win. In fact, that was his best-case scenario for Bush; his real count, like those on 15th Street, was a good deal more doleful.

Bush's men comforted themselves for a time with an eye-of-the-needle scenario in which he would lose the popular vote to Clinton but still win in the Electoral College-the first man to do so since Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876. The catch was that he needed to win all of his best 29 states to hit the magic number. By the eve of the first debate, Bush was leading in two-and one of them, Texas, had been thrown into doubt by the return of Ross Perot.

Except for the president himself, there weren't many bettors that he could make it; his own son George W. had begun wondering privately about life in the terrestrial hereafter. On the night of the first debate, one of his spin doctors stood in a knot of reporters, gamely claiming a great victory for Bush and a "pathetic" third for Clinton. But as he toyed with a steak a couple of hours later at a restaurant near the president's hotel, his forced smile vanished.

"We're cooked meat," he said softly, "and have been since a week after the convention. We all know it." It didn't even matter that they had run a miserable excuse for a campaign. "People are sick of the president," he said. "They don't dislike him, but they want him gone, and we're powerless to do anything about it.