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In October, niceties would be a surprise

It wasn't quite an October surprise, a last-minute revelation that could turn an election around. Its purpose seemed more subtle, to plant a late suspicion in voters' minds about Bill Clinton's loyalty, judgment and fitness to command the military.

To the Democrats, George Bush's questioning of what Clinton did as a student more than 20 years ago constituted an October smear.

The Democrats called it "McCarthyism," but maybe it was intended as psychological warfare, an attempt by the Republicans to unnerve Clinton on the eve of the first presidential debate _ the chief opportunity left for Bush to pull even with his rival.

The issue dominated the presidential campaign last week.

Bush, picking up a theme raised by other Republicans, attacked Clinton for "mobilizing demonstrations" in England against the Vietnam War in 1969 and questioned his purpose in visiting Moscow that winter as a tourist.

The questions about Clinton's overseas activities were first raised in House speeches by Rep. Robert Dornan.

The California Republican said he had no evidence, but had reached a "legitimate surmise" that the youthful Clinton had been a guest of the KGB during his week in Moscow in January 1970 in the course of a 40-day student tour of Europe. Clinton's running mate, Al Gore, called Dornan's conjecture an "October surmise."

In October, nuances and niceties melt away.

What wasn't melting was Clinton's lead in the polls. The gap between Bush and Clinton ranged from 8 to 17 points, but no national poll showed Bush ahead, or making much progress.

Individual state polls were even worse for Bush than the national numbers. States that Republicans usually count on for an electoral majority _ Florida, Texas, Louisiana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, for example _ were competitive. Bush had to invest time and resources trying to nail down his must-have base, visiting Texas and Louisiana.

Clinton worked Florida and North Carolina before tapering off to rest his hoarse voice for today's debate.

Ross Perot, meanwhile, marched to his own drummer. He ran his 30-minute commercial on the economy's troubles on television Tuesday, drawing a big audience. Twenty percent of all the TVs in use at the time were tuned in to him.

The Texas independent decided to run his tape a second time Friday night rather than an advertised second half hour laying out Perot's harsh-medicine solutions _ Draconian cuts in government supports for farmers, seniors, students and sharp tax increases on everyone.

That second commercial will be shown after the debate, Perot's people said.

Perot's standing in the polls remained often below 10 percent, in many cases lower than before he re-entered the race.

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