By John F. Harris
Democrats who have been campaigning during the congressional recess fear the president's acknowledgment that he deceived the nation about his relationship with the former White House intern could harm the party in the fall elections and that Clinton's problems are obscuring nearly all efforts to communicate a positive Democratic message.
Clinton, who aides said has been on the phone regularly with Democratic lawmakers in recent days, is looking for ways to win back the support he lost following his Aug. 17 address. Today, he was discussing with advisers making further remarks on the controversy as early as Thursday morning, when he will briefly interrupt his Martha's Vineyard vacation for a trip to nearby Worcester, Mass., for a speech on school violence.
But a variety of administration officials said Clinton would probably make no final decision about whether to mention the controversy or make further apologies for misleading the nation about his affair until hours before the speech. In any event, they said, if Clinton does address the matter, it will be only briefly.
Clinton advisers are discussing possible forums where the president could discuss the controversy at greater length, showing more of the humility and contrition that many said was missing from last week's speech. One leading possibility, among several, is for Clinton to talk about the matter before a previously scheduled breakfast with religious leaders Sept. 11, advisers said. But these sources noted that Clinton has given no commitments, and cautioned that first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton may be opposed to having the president say more.
The opinion among political advisers, both on and off the White House staff, that Clinton has no choice but to say more reflected their deepening anxiety that Democrats are taking flight from the president just as he most needs them to come to his aid for an impending showdown with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, who is preparing a report on his investigation of the president to send to Congress.
Today, Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) told local law enforcement officials in Milwaukee that "we have to determine whether the president can restore his credibility with the American people . . . or whether he should consider an alternative."
Later in an interview, Feingold said he was not recommending that Clinton resign, but that he "consider that one of a series of options that may be necessary if it's not possible to have the confidence of the American people."
Asked whether he thought it was possible for Clinton to repair his credibility, after misleading people for seven months about whether he had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, Feingold said: "I don't know. I think it's difficult but possible. Very difficult."
Feingold's dire assessment came a day after pointed remarks by both House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Democratic National Committee Chairman Roy Romer, which made plain that despite Clinton's plea for the nation to "move on," the issue is going to haunt the White House unless Clinton does more to put questions to rest.
Even the longtime liberal organization Americans for Democratic Action issued a statement condemning Clinton, charging that the president "chose to abuse his power."
The White House was most alarmed by Gephardt's open speculation Tuesday about the possibility of impeachment. The report that Starr is planning within weeks to send to Congress may require lawmakers to "make a judgment on whether or not he should be expelled from office," Gephardt said.
White House Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles, who in recent days has joined the damage-control effort after months of delegating this job to others, today phoned the minority leader to express concern, White House officials and Gephardt said. While not stepping aside from his earlier comments, Gephardt today emphasized that he supported Clinton.
Yet the fact that even nominal allies are now musing about Clinton's possible removal from office is causing the White House to recalibrate its political tactics almost daily. While some advisers had been pushing for additional remarks almost from the moment Clinton gave his Map Room address, more senior White House officials were just days ago playing down this possibility. Now, advisers said, nearly everyone agrees that something must be done soon.
The dilemma, aides said, remains essentially the same as it has been for more than a week. Clinton's own polls, like many public surveys, show a large majority of the public is weary of personal scandal and is accepting of the president's acknowledgment that his behavior with Lewinsky was wrong. But many elected officials and editorial commentators feel that Clinton's attack on Starr showed that he was not genuinely taking responsibility.
"The public was fine, the elites were not," said one adviser who is urging Clinton to say more. "You've got to let the elites win one."
If Clinton says more, one senior adviser said today, it will not be in another formal address, and most likely not be in an interview where awkward follow-up questions could be asked. The aim, this aide said, is to find ways to deal with outstanding questions without appearing as though Clinton is all-consumed by Starr's investigation.
Even as aides hatch various scenarios, they acknowledge that all of them hinge on approvals which have yet to be granted. "A strategy is starting to emerge, but a lot of it depends on how much [the Clintons] are willing to bear," one senior official said.
Beyond Clinton's next statement on the matter, the White House also is searching for strategies for the next stage when Starr sends a report to Congress of potentially impeachable offenses.
Some presidential advisers are discussing the possibility of sending their own report to Congress to present the evidence in a more favorable light. Under one scenario, the White House would ask House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) for a courtesy copy of Starr's report once it reaches Congress and then submit a rebuttal before anything is made public. However, Kendall has not signed off on this idea yet.
Officials are also considering recruiting new lawyers to help coordinate the president's defense in any impeachment proceedings, with an eye toward finding people more comfortable in the political arena to join Clinton's media-shy private attorney, David E. Kendall, and chief White House counsel, Charles F.C. Ruff. Possible candidates could include Richard Ben-Veniste, a former Watergate prosecutor who worked for Senate Democrats during Whitewater hearings, or W. Neil Eggleston, the former deputy White House counsel who represents the White House in its dispute with Starr over attorney-client privilege.
Staff writers Peter Baker in Washington and Eric Pianin in Milwaukee contributed to this report.
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