WASHINGTON (AP) _ Bill Clinton heads into a fast-paced series of presidential debates with roughly 200 electoral votes well within his grasp, while President Bush is struggling to nail down even a fraction of that, according to an Associated Press survey.

With 270 votes required for victory, several states large enough to sway the outcome remain hotly contested. Clinton leads in many of them - Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and New Jersey included. Ross Perot lags in every state three weeks before the election, according to the 50-state survey of campaign officials, party leaders, academicians and polls.

''I don't like the numbers I see today,'' said Rex Early, state Republican chairman in Vice President Dan Quayle's home state of Indiana. ''I'm glad the election is not today.''

For Bush, struggling to mount a comeback in the teeth of a poor economy, the survey underscores the importance of the face-to-face-to-face encounters with Clinton and Perot that begin Sunday night in St. Louis.

''A lot of things will change after the presidential debates,'' said Nevada GOP chairman Brian McKay - uttering not so much a prediction as a widely held Republican hope that the president can yet reverse the trend.

Democrats see it differently. ''I've never been so happy a month before a presidential election,'' said David Travis, a Democratic leader in the Wisconsin Legislature.

The AP survey shows Clinton ahead handsomely in three large states with 109 electoral votes combined: California (54), New York (33) and Illinois (22). He also is well ahead in several smaller states scattered around the country, Washington, Massachusetts, West Virginia, Minnesota, Maryland and Maine among them.

In California, the largest state, pollster Mervin Field said, ''The anti- Bush tide is so heavy and fed by the bad economy that it is sweeping away everything else.''

In contrast to Clinton, Bush seems comfortably ahead only in Utah (with 5 electoral votes) and Nebraska, which splits its electoral votes and may give one of five to Clinton.

The president's re-election strategy assumes victory in numerous southern, western and midwestern states that usually vote GOP, including Wyoming, South Carolina, Colorado, Louisiana, Kansas and Montana. But campaign officials from both parties in such states say they are far from settled, with Clinton ahead in some, and Bush leading narrowly in others.

In Nevada, usually Republican but now a close contest, GOP chairman McKay said, ''There's a lot of voter dissatisfaction out there, but when it comes time to push the button, people aren't going to be able to do it for Bill Clinton.''

But for every Republican expressing optimism, a Democrat sounds confident.

''I've really been amazed at the number of country club members who said they just can't vote for George Bush,'' said Ned Davis, a longtime Democratic activist in Delaware. ''I just think it's too late (for Bush) to turn the tide.''

Bush has yet to be able to establish firm control over Texas or Florida, two states considered essential to a Republican victory.

In Texas - with 32 electoral votes at stake - Bush led Clinton 40 percent to 35 percent with 20 percent for Perot in a poll taken the first week of October.

The president is ahead in Florida, but Clinton is contesting for the state's 25 electoral votes.

Perot's best state is Texas. Many of those surveyed say he is a mere shadow of the political presence that threatened the established political order this spring.

''He has completely squandered any capital he had,'' said James Moore, a political science professor at the University of Portland in Oregon.

In virtually every state, officials agreed the economy is the dominant concern on the minds of the voters, and it is working in favor of Clinton and against Bush.

''The situation here has been so bad that people are really looking for a way out, and for a number of them, that really has come down to changing players,'' said Edward S. O'Meara Jr., Republican chairman for Maine.

George Stephanopoulos, Clinton's communications director, says, ''Right now we're in pretty good shape. We need to keep talking about the economy and not let up.''

Robert Teeter, Bush campaign chairman, said the outcome is dependent on late-deciding voters who make up their mind on the character and beliefs of the candidates. ''The debates are going to start'' them along their way to a decision, he said. ''And we're going to have a three-week campaign.''

If so, the survey shows that Bush will begin behind in all the traditional industrial state battlegrounds.

The polls and the political leaders in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Missouri all rate Clinton the leader in those states, with 88 electoral votes among them.

''There's no question that Clinton is ahead right now'' in New Jersey, said former Gov. Thomas Kean, a Republican who cites concerns about the economy for the Democratic advantage. He added that Bush is gaining and ''Clinton hasn't won. There is still an opportunity.''

In Ohio, where the polls show Clinton leading by about 10 points, Doug Preisse, the director of Bush's statewide campaign said, ''We are not where we need to be but I think we are headed in the right direction.''

Republicans concede Clinton the advantage in Michigan and Missouri, as well.