Dems Fear Losing Focus on Issues
By David S. Broder
Democratic activists and longtime Clinton supporters around the country said yesterday they are hoping the president can quickly come up with convincing answers to the new allegations threatening his tenure. If convincing rebuttals are not presented soon, they said, the damage to the party may be severe.
Although public comments from elected officials continued to be cautiously supportive of Clinton, it was the private views of Democratic activists that reflected some of the greatest anxiety yesterday as politicians at all levels tried to assess the impact of the fast-moving story.
"These are serious allegations which the president has denied, and which deserve an investigation that should be conducted quickly and fairly," said Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.). "I also hope . . . we can keep our focus on the important domestic and foreign challenges facing our nation."
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) took a similar tone. "The president has said these allegations are not true," Gephardt said. "My view is that no one should draw any conclusions in this matter until the investigation is allowed to determine the facts."
But one veteran Democrat in the liberal bastion of Madison, Wis., said he was "stunned" to attend midday Mass and "hear the priest pray for the country. It was the kind of stuff you heard during Watergate." His boss in state government came out of his office during the afternoon to ask, "Well, how do you like President Gore?"
Though that was among the extreme views, phone interviews with Democrats in more than a dozen states found them perplexed and greatly alarmed by reports that Clinton had a sexual relationship with a former White House intern and that she alleged in a tape-recorded conversation that he encouraged her to lie about it.
A Boston Democrat noted with distress, "It's rare here that anything can overshadow the pope, but this has eclipsed the pope and the Super Bowl, both."
Several others said the story had generated conversation and expressions of concern in their communities far beyond the level generated by earlier chapters of the Whitewater investigation or last year's campaign finance hearings.
"It's all over the news," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), just back from his home state. "People think it's bizarre." "I'm afraid this will stick more than the other stuff has," said a former federal official living in Nashville.
Most of the activists declined to discuss their reactions on the record, but there were a number of apprehensive comments about Clinton's efforts Wednesday to deny the allegations in radio, TV and print interviews. "It sounded like the lawyers had scripted him," said a Massachusetts Democrat, referring critically to the president's carefully phrased responses.
A Democratic pollster said he was struck by the passivity of the White House's response to the charges. "When something happens, they usually swing into action and attack the other side," he said. "This time, there has been a lot of silence."
Party and congressional officials began to defend the president yesterday or at least to ask people to withhold judgment until more facts are known. Democratic National Committee Chairman Steve Grossman commended "the clarity and unequivocal nature" of the denials from Clinton and his close adviser, attorney Vernon E. Jordan Jr. "What I have heard all day on the phone," Grossman said, "is an exhortation from Democrats that he continue on the agenda that has made this country a better place and help us restore a Democratic majority [in Congress] this November."
For their part, Republicans continued to avoid any gloating. In Columbia, S.C., House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) said, "I think every citizen ought to slow down, relax and wait for the facts to develop. When we know, then is the time to comment."
In Jackson, Miss., Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott was only slightly less cautious. "The allegations are certainly very serious. If they should prove to be true, that's going to cause some problems legally," Lott said.
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) said, "I pray the allegations are false, and will believe in the president's innocence unless there is persuasive evidence to the contrary." But Rep. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), who accompanied Gingrich, told reporters that if the allegations prove to be true, the Clinton presidency would be "on the verge of a meltdown."
A veteran Democratic campaign manager in South Carolina said the damage was already being done. "In a tough election year," he said, "this means we Democrats just have to endure more ridicule. We can't rebuild our party around this fellow with all the baggage he's carrying."
Michigan Democratic pollster Ed Sarpolus argued that even if the allegations are proved, "this is different from Watergate. The focus is on Clinton the man, not Clinton the Democrat. If he goes down, the party would have less cleanup to do."
Sarpolus and several other Democrats noted that their fellow-partisans are suspicious of Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, who has taken over the latest inquiry. "This guy has more power than the pope," said a Massachusetts Democrat.
Staff writers Guy Gugliotta and Terry M. Neal contributed to this report.
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