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PEROT COULD PLAY KEY ROLE AS RACE HITS HOME STRETCH

It may not seem like the traditional start of a general election campaign. After all, President Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton have been going at each other most of the year.

Yet with Labor Day, the race enters the home stretch - two candidates, two parties, two months of nonstop campaigning, and then the voters' final say.This year has seen its share of tumult. President Bush watched his popularity tumble. And tumble. And tumble. Clinton continues to be hounded by questions over his character and personal life. Both candidates were roughed up in the primaries. And the system was thrown for a loop by the meteoric rise and burn-out of independent challenger Ross Perot.

Despite the narrowing of the field and focus, the political landscape ahead remains partly obscured. Neither side can lay claim to the roadmap to a victory on Nov. 3.

Even though he's not in the race actively, Perot remains a force. The Texas billionaire is already on the ballot in 40 states and could be a significant factor in states with close races.

Strategists in both parties say they expect the race to be extremely tight, perhaps decided only in the final days.

And it will be waged in a larger-than-usual number of battleground states.

Labor Day finds Clinton ahead in essentially all national polls, although his lead is down from the nearly 30 point margin he enjoyed after the Democratic convention to around 10-15 points.

An incumbent president down in the polls at the beginning of September has rarely been able to turn things around.

Both candidates will spend a lot of time stumping in the Midwest - home to many swing votes and Reagan Democrats. Both Bush and Clinton were kicking off their Labor Day campaigning in the region; Bush in Michigan, Clinton in Missouri.

Key battleground states also include Ohio, Illinois, California, Texas, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Florida. Others may emerge.

"This election remains wide open. I don't think either of the candidates can put this election away until the end," said Democratic analyst Ann Lewis.

Even though many voters are unhappy with Bush, they're also unsure about Clinton, she said. "That means the debates are of central importance," she said.

The two camps disagree on how many debates to have and in what format. Clinton has accepted a nonpartisan commission's recommendation for three presidential and one vice presidential debates; Bush hasn't.

Both sides say they expect televised debates to occur; it's just a matter of working out the details.

Usually, debates help a challenger more than an incumbent. But when the incumbent trails in the polls, the dynamics change.

"I think a lot of people are going to be looking at these debates, genuinely trying to sort out who they feel the least bad about," said GOP consultant Eddie Mahe.

This election year has already seen its share of personal attacks and accusations of lying. Expect that to continue as the Bush campaign continues to try to nurture the notion that Clinton is untrustworthy. It may be one of the nastiest campaigns in recent U.S. history, in fact.

The campaign, and this year's television ads, "will be extraordinarily negative. At times we will be embarrassed," said Thomas Mann, a governmental analyst at Brookings Institution.

"Bush will have to work very hard to narrow the gap and as a result will have to embrace a riskier strategy. Bush will have to be the aggressor," Mann said. "They (Bush) really are coming from behind at a time when the underlying forces in the economy are moving against them."

Bush must shore up his support in traditional GOP regions - the South and other regions of the Sunbelt and the Mountain West. Clinton needs to hold onto the Democratic base in the Northeast - and try to keep the lead he now has in California.

Perot's presence on the ballot could be a significant factor in states with a lot of swing votes - so expect both Bush and Clinton to keep courting Perot supporters.

Pollster Frank Luntz, whose clients this year included Perot and GOP challenger Patrick Buchanan, says Perot votes could provide the decisive margin in some big electoral-vote states such as Texas, California and Michigan.

Perot could siphon off Bush votes in home state Texas and "put the state in play for Clinton," Luntz said. By contrast, Bush "can't beat Clinton head on" in California but could carry it if Perot picks up enough of the protest vote there.

Michigan now seems up for grabs, and Perot's strength there could toss the outcome either way, Luntz suggested.

Also look for both sides to go after the support of women and suburbanites.

"They are critical to this election and they are historically, in presidential elections, two of the most important swing groups that provide you with the margin of victory," said Bush campaign chairman Robert Teeter.

"Obviously, that's the secret of the election - to go target the swing voters," he said.

Despite an early GOP emphasis on "family values," look for both parties to stress the economy. There isn't enough time left for the flat U.S. economy to turn around and help Bush.

So watch for Clinton to continue to criticize Bush's stewardship of the economy for the past four years; and for Bush to imply that he has the better strategy and the better qualifications to lead the nation out of its slump.