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    President Clinton and Vice President Gore in North Carolina
    President Clinton and Vice President Gore in Ashe, N.C., where they declared the New River an American Heritage River. (Reuters)
    By John F. Harris
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, July 31, 1998; Page A08

    RALEIGH, N.C., July 30 – Taking flight from the political heat of Washington, President Clinton arrived in the summer swelter of North Carolina today and found the temperature entirely to his liking.

    "We love you, Mr. President," a woman shouted from far back in the crowd, as Clinton addressed several thousand supporters who seemed to care not a whit about Monica S. Lewinsky. There was a pause, then a smiling acknowledgment: "Thank you, ma'am."

    Back in Washington, Clinton's intensifying legal problems this week recalled the air of crisis when the Lewinsky controversy first broke. And so, too, did Clinton's response to trouble: He hit the road with Vice President Gore, just as he did in a swing through the Midwest the day after the State of the Union address last January. Like before, he leaned on the issues that have carried him through political hard times in the past.

    In this case, it was the environment. Clinton and Gore made the official announcement of the first 14 rivers to be designated "American Heritage Rivers." One of those rivers is the New River, which is what brought the two men today to the Severt family farm, along the banks of the New as it carves through the lush green mountains of Ashe County in western North Carolina.

    Later, Clinton traveled alone to Raleigh for a fund-raising reception for Democratic Senate candidate John Edwards. In both places there was plenty of anecdotal evidence to corroborate polls showing that – whatever legal jeopardy Clinton may face if he had an affair with Lewinsky and coached her to lie about it – many in the public seem not to care if the allegations are true.

    "Things are humming," said a 59-year-old retired utility lineman who came out to the New River event, referring to the economy. "Leave him alone. He's too busy with his job to be fooling with this nonsense."

    "He's got to work things out with Hillary," said a property assessment expert, who said he considers it none of his business what the president may have done with Lewinsky.

    That reaction was repeated throughout the Ashe County crowd of some 6,000. While people who come to see Clinton would tend by definition to be sympathetic, the nonchalant reaction to the latest Lewinsky news was offered by some in the audience who said they tend to vote Republican. In fact, the district's GOP House member, Rep. Richard Burr, shared the stage with Clinton and Gore, and praised the administration's new river-protection program.

    The mood was not quite so bipartisan among a modest number of picketers outside the Raleigh fund-raiser. "Honk for impeachment," said one sign. "Hey Clinton – resign, stupid," said another.

    Today's trip was also served as a sort of unofficial exploratory mission for White House Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles, who aides said is giving some highly tentative consideration to running for governor in 2000 in his native North Carolina. Bowles rarely travels on presidential trips, and until recently had never been regarded in the White House as a likely office-seeker.

    Today, however, he seemed to be trying out his political voice. He preceded Clinton on the stage at both public events, and in Raleigh gave brief but exuberant remarks touting Edwards and Clinton. All day, Clinton, Gore and Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. (D) lavished praise on Bowles before the home-state audience for his contribution to the 1997 balanced budget agreement.

    The Potomac River was also one of the 14 rivers to be designated an American Heritage river. The program does not provide any direct regulatory protection for rivers. But each river does get assigned a federal official to help local communities coordinate programs to preserve the waterways and promote sound economic and recreational uses.

    The program became surprisingly controversial after critics warned that being designated a heritage river might strip private property owners of some land-use rights. Clinton took pains to say this is not true. "There will be no federal mandates, no restrictions on property holders' rights," he said. "Our goal is to help local groups enhance historic rivers and make them attractive and commercially vibrant even as we preserve their environmental characteristics."

    Clinton, who on Wednesday lashed Republicans for snubbing his education proposals, today lamented the decline of bipartisan support for the environment. Some Republican lawmakers, he charged, "really do see, I believe honestly, polluted streams and fields or noxious air as overstated problems that can be put off for another day."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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