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Campaign '98

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Campaign '98

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Strategists Urge Democrats to Change Subject

By Ceci Connolly and Terry M. Neal
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 7, 1998; Page A12

The men and women who make their living telling politicians what to do say they wouldn't consider instructing House members on how to vote Thursday on impeachment proceedings against President Clinton.

But on the Democratic side, the consultants agree that once the vote is over, the lawmakers better head home and start talking about something else.

"These kinds of votes are very personal and they're votes of conscience," said Peter Fenn, a Democratic strategist advising several House incumbents. "The argument I am making strongly to my candidates is go on the offense on the issues. My slogan is: 'Issues do matter.' "

With the midterm elections less than a month away, even the political pros have trouble predicting how the scandal and the impeachment issue will affect the fortunes of Democratic candidates, especially those in classic swing districts where even a slight drop in turnout could mean victory for the GOP.

"I don't think for most voters it's going to be nearly as breathtaking an issue as it is for all of us in this 25-square-block area," said Washington-based Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman.

He said few of his clients have asked him for advice, but when they do, he has told them all the same thing: Vote your conscience. "You're much better off voting in a way that you believe in and can defend rather than trying to thread some kind of political needle."

"We are telling candidates to focus on the issues that impact their districts directly, like protection of the Social Security system," said Giles Perkins, executive director of the Alabama Democratic Party. "We're giving them the same advice we gave six months ago, that the business in Washington is not a focal point of these campaigns."

Fenn said he worries some of his clients spend too much time inside the Beltway and thus "think everybody is consumed by the day-to-day debate over Clinton's sex life. . . . Americans are mad at any politician who only talks about this scandal or only devotes time to this scandal."

One Democratic Party official said the campaign rhetoric should be targeted to the district. "The base is energized about supporting the president so if you have a district with a lot of base voters you should be against the inquiry," this official said. If you are a Democrat representing a more moderate district, "we are saying the issues candidate beats the morality candidate."

Many Democrats are heartened by recent polls showing that most voters will not base their decisions in November on the Clinton scandal and this week's vote.

"People think I'm crazy, but I think they should walk out and let Republicans railroad this thing through," said Philadelphia-based Neil Oxman, who acknowledged his storm-out strategy has not caught hold with lawmakers. "They should just say this is a ridiculous, partisan effort and turn and walk away."

Dane Strother, a media consultant advising House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates, said he understands that some conservative southern Democrats may worry about political fallout if they oppose an impeachment inquiry. But he thinks the fears are unfounded. "Most people understand that this is absolutely partisan, which absolutely destroys the credibility of this investigation," he said.

Louisiana Democratic Party executive director Trey Orso said he believed that the issue has taken such a partisan tone that it will excite core supporters such as teachers, unions, women and African Americans, countering any backlash of Republicans against Democrats vote against the inquiry.

"A few weeks ago, I would have sworn we were going to get crushed," Orso said. "But I think the Republicans have really piled on a bit too much. I think our base is starting to get motivated and energized."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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