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Clinton Joins Party in a Spirited Retreat

By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 11, 1998; Page A17

WINTERGREEN, Va., Feb. 10—House Democrats gave President Clinton a resounding show of support today in their first private meeting with him since allegations of a sex and coverup scandal hit three weeks ago.

Then many of these 150 Democrats feared the controversy might damage them too, but now the people who live and die by the polls said their spirits are as high as Clinton's ratings. A string of surveys in recent days show Clinton's job approval rating at all-time highs.

"The mood here?" offered D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton. "He's at 80 percent; what do you think the mood is?"

Today's session with Clinton and Vice President Gore was closed to the news media -- as was the rest of the three-day retreat at this ski resort in the Blue Ridge Mountains -- but more than a dozen participants described it as a lively meeting in which many legislators dismissed the allegations against Clinton as the unsubstantiated stuff of tabloids and promised to work to pass his legislative agenda. Five or six times, Clinton was interrupted by applause and after his midday speech members flocked to the front of the room to shake his hand, give him a hug or offer an encouraging word.

"I told him for all of us that we support him and more importantly the American people support him," said Rep. John D. Dingell (Mich.), dean of the Democratic caucus. "What we have found in our districts recently is that voters approve of Clinton and think it's time that dirty old man [independent counsel] Mr. [Kenneth W.] Starr get off his back."

"This was an energizer for him," said Rep. Deborah Ann Stabenow (Mich.).

"A number of people expressed support for the president and spoke against the idea he should be subjected to this kind of personal attack," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.).

Noting there has not been "one scintilla of evidence to contradict the president's denial," Rep. Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.) said he would like to "see more outrage. I would like to see the president as outraged as his counsel over the whole darn thing."

For his part, Clinton did not mention the scandal about his alleged relationship with a former White House intern. Instead, he promised to help Democrats in this year's elections and urged the lawmakers to stay focused on substance, saying voters will reward them. On Thursday, he and Gore will attend a Capitol Hill ceremony in which congressional Democrats will unveil their poll-tested agenda for the year.

Today's session, described by one participant as a "love fest" marked by uncommon unity in the traditionally fractured Democratic Party, reflected growing confidence among the rank-and-file that Clinton may well weather the most serious crisis of his political career.

But these Democrats also know the president may not be home free, and like their constituents, they are waiting for all the facts to emerge.

"You can bet your bottom dollar I would not condone such activity if I knew it to be true," Norton said. "I give him the same presumption of innocence I give the thugs who murder and steal."

Rep. Lloyd Doggett (Tex.) said he is giving Clinton the benefit of the doubt, but he wants the president to "provide a full and complete disclosure. This is not going to go away and I think the American public deserves an answer."

At the same time House Democrats were meeting in Wintergreen, House Republicans were walled off at a private retreat in Williamsburg. The official word there was that the conference would be devoted solely to the GOP's legislative agenda -- not a word about the president's situation was to be spoken by any Republican -- leader or backbencher. And, indeed, today's sessions focused on budget and social policy issues. But one freshman lawmaker allowed that the scandal surrounding Clinton had not been completely avoided: "The only talk is jokes," this Republican said, "and there is some puzzlement about Clinton's high poll numbers."

For incumbents of both parties, 1998 looks to be a promising campaign year. The challenge for Democrats is trying to pick off the dozen seats needed to regain control of the House.

During a session on the party's prospects in November, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) said that even in the midst of the Clinton controversy, recruiting challengers has gone well. According to some in the audience, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.)announced to cheers: "Last year we got halfway up the mountain to take back the House. This year let's do it."

Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who briefed the lawmakers Sunday, said the party has been leading in most polls since the end of 1997. A question asking that if the election were held today, which party would you support, has put Democrats 6 to 12 percentage points up, he said, even in the last few weeks.

"We're fighters," said Rep. Albert R. Wynn (Md.), who acknowledged he arrived at the Wintergreen Resort expecting more hand-wringing from his colleagues. "We're very feisty, very aggressive. Let's get it on."

A smattering of pollsters, governors, high-tech gurus and academics led panel discussions on topics from tax policy to the Internet. At today's closing session, Clinton and Gore touted the administration's accomplishments so far -- a balanced budget, low unemployment, declining taxes -- and again pitched the priorities outlined in the State of the Union address last month.

They will keep the pressure on with Thursday's event, pressing for action in four major areas of concern: retirement security, education, health care and pay equity. They are expected to push for Clinton's Social Security and Medicare revisions, an increase in the minimum wage, additional protections for managed care patients and money for school construction and 100,000 new elementary teachers.

Back in Washington late today, Democratic House leaders held a news conference to underscore the party's unity and commitment to the president and his agenda. "We're going to stand next to him, stand by him, and we fully expect this issue to be resolved in a way that will be satisfactory to the American people and allow us to get on with the business of governing," Rep. Vic Fazio (Calif.) said.

Referring to last year's clashes between the White House and Gephardt over trade and budget issues, Fazio said, "Those have pretty much dissipated. . . . I think people just decided we have bigger issues to deal with. . . . The goal now is to take back the house."

Staff writers Terry M. Neal in Williamsburg and Eric Pianin in Washington contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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