By David S. Broder and Terry M. Neal
Within a half-hour of Congress's release of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report last week, reporters were calling to ask Jay Nixon if he still planned to attend a big Democratic fund-raiser featuring President Clinton next month in St. Louis.
Nixon, the Democrat challenging Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), said he wasn't sure. But this week, Nixon decided he would attend. And he found what he hopes is a way to benefit from the situation. On Wednesday, his campaign will begin running television commercials featuring Nixon's wife, Georganne, talking about his Eagle Scout past and shots of their family at church -- drawing a sharp contrast with Clinton.
"We plan to use it as an opportunity," said Nixon's campaign manager, Chuck Hatfield. "It's a response to what's going on in the public dialogue about character."
That is Nixon's way out of a dilemma confronting all Democrats in competitive races this fall. With the midterm elections seven weeks away, they are being warned against embracing the legal defense Clinton's lawyers have thrown up. At the same time, they are being told that if they abandon the president, they may sink themselves and their party.
Just yesterday, the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) and Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.), urged the White House to drop what Daschle called "hair-splitting . . . legal technicalities." Democrats understand why Clinton's lawyers are trying to defend him against a possible perjury charge, but few of them believe it is politically credible for Clinton to continue to claim that he had been truthful in his two sworn statements about his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky.
Boston Democratic consultant Tubby Harrison warned that criticism from within the party may be unwise. "The impact on Democrats on Election Day will be in part what they impose on themselves," he said. "It doesn't mean you condone what he's done, but most places, running away from the president doesn't do Democrats any good. I don't sense outrage out there, so just run your campaign."
Some candidates, such as Nixon, are trying to split the difference -- or have it both ways. Hatfield acknowledged deep misgivings on Nixon's part about closely associating with the president. But the candidate decided to stick by Clinton -- at least for now -- and use the president's problems to showcase his own character, while benefiting from whatever popularity the president retains.
But walking that tightrope will not be easy. "The problem for Democrats," said Republican consultant Ralph Reed, "is how to express an appropriate degree of disapproval for the president's misbehavior without totally deflating the enthusiasm of Democrats and losing the turnout they need."
So far, four non-incumbent Democratic candidates for the House have called for the president's resignation. But several more have begun to put some distance between themselves and the party standard-bearer.
For instance, Mary Rauh, a congressional candidate in New Hampshire's 2nd District, praised Clinton's policies but said he may have to consider resigning "if he can no longer run the country effectively." In Nevada, Shelley Berkley has stopped short of calling for Clinton's resignation, but said she does not want him to campaign in her district.
The costs of moving too close or too far away were expressed by Democratic leaders in New Hampshire and Arizona.
Jeff Woodburn, the party chairman in New Hampshire, said, "The last thing I'm going to do is defend something that is not defensible." Speaking of the Clinton effort to deny he committed perjury in either his deposition in the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit or in his grand jury testimony last month, Woodburn said, "I think he should stop with this legal approach. The people want to be leveled with. I'm afraid that strategy doesn't allow us to move on, because we're going to spend too much time splitting hairs."
Arizona Democratic national committeeman Martin Bacal, on the other hand, said the calls to headquarters have been overwhelmingly supportive of Clinton. "Some of the Democratic candidates have made some comments attacking his [Clinton's] actions and behavior," he said, and in turn have been criticized themselves by party activists.
"As a blanket statement," Bacal said, "I think it's a mistake for a candidate to take away one of the reasons that people have to vote for him. The base Democratic vote in Arizona is supportive of the president." Bacal also said he had no problem with the president's legal strategy. "I think it's wise always to listen to your attorney."
Former representative Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) came down on the other side. She said she was warning her old colleagues "they can't be out there trying to be an extension of the legal team. That is very dangerous for the party. They have to deal with the fact that this is not the role model we want for the Democratic Party."
But Kiki Moore, a Democratic consultant in Washington, had different advice. "The people who are jumping up and disavowing him are making a big mistake," she said. "Candidates are not going to get whacked just because they are Democrats and so is Bill Clinton. The thing to say is that 'I want to get this matter resolved in the most expeditious way.' "
Labor leaders, big-city mayors and others with a big stake in the November elections have been working the phones the last three days trying to keep Democratic candidates from jumping ship on Clinton. "This is an issue that the public does not want to deal with," said George Gould, political director of the letter carriers union. "But Democrats who are running have to hold their water. If they start criticizing or condemning, the Republicans will profit."
But Stan Greenberg, who polled for the 1992 Clinton campaign, argued, "Democratic candidates have to express how they feel about events in the White House. Otherwise, they look out of touch with the values of ordinary folks. Later on, there may be an opportunity to engage the voters on the appropriate response to what Clinton has done."
Harrison Hickman, another Democratic pollster, counseled caution. "I have suggested my candidates sit back, take a deep breath and listen to people. Don't get pressured by the chattering class to give a response."
But Gale Kaufman, who manages Democratic campaigns in California, said the cautious response may carry its own risks. "I've told candidates I don't care what they say, as long as they mean it. This is a completely new area, and no poll is going to give you the right answer on this issue. This is so guttural, so emotional, that even if people disagree with you, they want to hear what you really think. My concern is that so many candidates appear real cautious."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company