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Gore Rallying Hill Support for Clinton

Vice President Al Gore arrives with a Secret Service agent at the White House Tuesday. (AP)
By Thomas B. Edsall and Helen Dewar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 27, 1998; Page A01

The White House is making an intense, last-minute effort to build enthusiasm among demoralized congressional Democrats, fearful that President Clinton's State of the Union speech tonight could actually get a more polite response from Republicans.

Leading a team of administration officials fanning out on Capitol Hill, Vice President Gore met for an hour with the New Democrat Coalition yesterday. Members said he had some success restoring the faith of the 41-member organization of moderate to conservative Democrats. But so far the president has gotten scant public support from members of his own party, who say privately that they feel angry and betrayed by new allegations of sexual infidelity.

With few exceptions, Republicans are going out of their way to be polite and respectful as the president presents his agenda for the year at a speech scheduled for 9 p.m. The speech, delivered in the House chamber, meets the constitutional requirement that he "from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union."

The volume of the opening ovation and the number and intensity of interruptions for applause has come to be regarded as a barometer of the president's popularity and the prospects for his programs.

"The president of the United States will be an honored guest to the House and Senate, will be received in a cordial manner, as every president has since Woodrow Wilson began the habit of delivering the address in person," House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) told reporters. "I think that everyone should expect that to happen. They should tune in. I think they'll see us welcome the president."

One Democrat, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), said he anticipates an "appropriately civil response," noting that the American people may react adversely to any "distasteful" behavior.

"In fact, I think there may be less of a tendency for – dare I say – juvenile behavior," referring to the exaggerated displays of support – and disdain – that have come to mark the congressional reaction to many recent State of the Union addresses.

In private remarks, echoed by a number of his colleagues, one Democratic member of the House who has been a presidential supporter said: "I feel betrayed by this man. Here is someone who helped bring the party back to the center, balanced the budget, and put us on the verge of regaining public support, and now he gets into this kind of mess again."

The annually televised event traditionally has been marked by high ritual. The doorkeeper brings the entire chamber to attention with the cry, "Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States!" The president then walks down the center aisle to the podium, through an audience of senators, representatives, cabinet members, Supreme Court justices and foreign ambassadors.

In recent years, the event has become increasingly partisan, with members of the president's party loudly cheering and applauding his remarks while the opposition remains far less enthusiastic, if not silent. In 1974, at the height of the Watergate crisis, Democrats, especially liberal Democrats, hissed and booed Richard M. Nixon. In 1987, Republicans stood and cheered after President Reagan justified the sale of arms to Iran; Democrats sat in stony silence.

In normal years, members of the president's party jockey for seats near the aisle so that they are not only likely to be captured on film applauding, but also captured shaking the president's hand as he leaves.

This year, in contrast, Democrats are worried that the jockeying will be for the least prominent seats, in the areas most unlikely to be picked up by cameras.

Gore's appearance before the New Democrat Coalition did appear to have rebuilt support among some of the group's leaders, who just this last weekend were making pointedly neutral statements about the president's predicament.

The three co-chairmen, Reps. James P. Moran Jr. (Va.), Timothy J. Roemer (Ind.) and Calvin M. Dooley (Calif.) emerged ebullient and in full spin mode. All three praised Gore for making his case and all three said they believed the president.

"I think we can say for the members that everyone was reassured," said Moran, adding that Gore had given them an "unequivocal statement [of support for Clinton], and that was good enough for us." Dooley said: "The majority of Democrats take the president at his word."

When speaking to reporters, Moran mistakenly referred to Gore as "the president." According to staffers, the same mistake was made by Dooley and Roemer during the closed meeting with Gore.

Other Democrats remained more cautious than Dooley. Rep. Jim Turner (Tex.) repeatedly ducked several direct questions about whether he believed Clinton's denials. Turner described Gore's remarks as "reassuring," but added that it is too early to judge the president.

Rep Michael F. Doyle (Pa.) said "There's been such a feeding frenzy over this whole situation that people don't know what to believe." Does Doyle believe Clinton is telling the truth? "He has denied this, yes, but the American people want to wait until all the facts are in."

Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (N.Y.) said she is "going to keep an open mind. It's either the worst setup in the world or a case of extreme recklessness on his part, self-destruction." Slaughter acknowledged the sex scandal is a hot topic in her Rochester district. "People are glued to their sets and are reading the papers assiduously."

One GOP leader, Sen. Larry E. Craig (Idaho), chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, voiced strong criticism of Clinton, but will express his displeasure by skipping the joint session.

"I've attended them in the past. I just feel this is the appropriate thing to do at this time," he said.

Another Republican leader, Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles (Okla.), was sharply critical of the president: "This administration has had scandal after scandal after scandal," adding, "all of us have interns in our office and most of us have kids the same age" as Monica Lewinsky. Nickles told reporters, however: "I think he will deliver the State of the Union very well. My guess is that it will be well received."

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said he believes there will be "a strong move to get the president to resign in the Democratic Party." But at the State of the Union Speech, he said he would be "very upset if people don't show courtesy."

One Democratic senator, asking not to be quoted by name, predicted that Democrats will be subdued in their reaction to Clinton's speech. "Until this thing is over, you're not going to have waving and cheering in the aisles," he said.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) emerged as a rare Democrat willing to stand behind Clinton: "I believe the president will be vindicated." He was joined by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who declared, "This president has my support."

Staff writers Kevin Merida and Terry M. Neal and staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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