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For Big-Money Democrats, Clinton's Still Worth It

By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 16, 1998; Page A06

MIAMI BEACH, Feb. 15—When it comes to Bill Clinton, Marcia Wiss has heard it all.

Ever since they studied together at Georgetown University 30 years ago, Wiss has ridden the emotional roller coaster reserved for Friends of Bill. She has experienced the euphoric highs of stunning victory and the bitter lows of a career beset by scandal.

These days, the international trade lawyer writes big checks to Clinton's Democratic Party -- at least $10,000 a year -- and is riding out the latest wave of allegations aimed at her classmate, the president.

Back in Washington, the political pros are noodling a puzzle: How can President Clinton, confronting the most serious controversy of his presidency, be soaring to record popularity ratings? But here along the Atlantic, where about 175 of the Democratic Party's most loyal donors mixed a weekend of futuristic issue briefings with old-fashioned recreating, there's little mystery.

"Most people realize this is just not the most important issue for the country," Wiss said of the sex and perjury allegations surrounding the president, as she sipped cocktails under the palm trees with fellow members of the Democratic Business Council, a collection of supporters who contribute a minimum of $10,000 to the party each year.

More important, there's no reason for these investors to cut off the money flow now -- not when they are finally reaping the benefits. "Look at the polls; people vote their pocketbooks," said Washington attorney Bruce Aitken. "Clinton took a scared electorate and gave them a balanced budget and a future of sustained economic prosperity."

This is exactly the message Democratic officials want to hear from donors at these gatherings. Although no cash changed hands here, organizers hoped the weekend's long-scheduled getaway would spur these contributors to help the party dig out from under its current net debt of $9 million. Party officials point out that in the midst of the scandal, just as Clinton's job approval rating has increased in the polls, so have contributions to the party.

As the controversy over the president's relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky enters its fifth week, a new dynamic appears to be emerging in Democratic circles. Drawing inspiration from first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's vigorous defense of her husband -- and encouraged by the president's lofty poll numbers -- activists are laying aside their doubts about the president's personal behavior, choosing instead to cling fiercely to this charming leader and his popular agenda. "He's got such unbelievable people skills, many are willing to forgive so very, very much," said Maryland state Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's), who became enraptured by Clinton's myriad talents six years ago. "As [former Clinton business partner] Susan McDougal says, he seduces men as well as women."

More than a few here will gossip in the bar late at night that they feel certain Clinton has been unfaithful. But in the light of day, with the tape recorders rolling, they are nothing but business. They say they accept his denials of a sexual relationship with Lewinsky and allegations that he urged her to lie about it. "Most people here have put it behind them," said Steve Crout, a lobbyist whose Arlington-based American Gas Association ponied up the $15,000 corporate fee to join the Business Council.

The donors gathered at the oceanside Fountainbleu resort fall into two categories: the stiff-upper-lip, steely-gaze, doggedly determined Democratic stalwarts who are sticking with their president and the here's-my-card, let-me-tell-you-about-plastics professional networkers who don't give a hoot about their leader's fortunes as long as his policy initiatives survive.

Collectively, they are just a small percentage of the Americans telling pollsters they like the job Clinton is doing. But they are the sort of in-the-know, been-through-the-war VIPs who often are the first to signal shifts in the political winds.

Even as independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr does his best to generate gale force winds, the short-term political forecast for Clinton calls for light, tropical breezes.

"We rejoice in his approval ratings," former Democratic national chairman Donald L. Fowler said with a grin.

California Rep. Vic Fazio, briefing the donors on Democrats' election-year prospects, said the Lewinsky imbroglio drew millions of new potential supporters to watch Clinton's well-received State of the Union speech. "We are in strong shape, led by a president who is incredibly popular," Fazio concluded. "Despite all his problems, he survives them, he surmounts them."

Discussion of the long-term forecast generally was avoided here, even as new revelations emerged. Some of the seasoned veterans acknowledged the latest Clinton drama may end in disappointment and could damage Democrats in the fall elections. "To think that all the work, effort and energy put into this agenda could evaporate is very depressing," said Susan Turnbull, a Maryland Democrat ardently supporting the president. "But I can't think that's going to happen."

Others, such as Miller, display the gallows humor of war survivors, regaling each other with tales of Clinton's previous near-death experiences. "There was Gennifer Flowers, the marijuana thing, the Vietnam thing," he said, sounding like a soldier cataloguing his battle scars. "Some of his close friends are obviously disappointed. Having gone through these issues before and having cleared so many difficult hurdles, they had hoped the lessons would be learned."

Miller is not among them. "I've watched him overcome so many obstacles in his life. I want him very much to succeed."

Others are torn.

"I'm struggling with this one," said Robert L. Rhodes Jr., executive partner at the Holland & Knight law firm. Although he views marriage as a sacred bond, "the business of governance probably outweighs the significance of this particular incident," he said.

Several world travelers in this group, such as Boston businessman Samir Desai, said America ought to loosen up in its sexual attitudes. But if Starr proves Clinton committed far more serious crimes of perjury and obstruction of justice, Desai would be distressed. "Then I think Clinton has to make a decision himself," perhaps even resigning, he said.

Just in case these very generous supporters did need back-stiffening, organizers imported Vice President Gore and White House strategist Paul Begala.

Making a plea for even more money from a group that gave $14 million in 1997, Gore said the party's political focus this year is regaining the House. "When the Democrats were in control, we laid the groundwork for the good times we have been enjoying," he said at a breakfast today. "We must have your help."

After somewhat flat remarks the night before, Gore was growling this morning. The ever-growing "far-right wing of the Republican Party" has stalled the judicial nominating process and hung up United Nations funding over the abortion issue, he complained. "We're at our best in America when people reach out across party lines and support ideas that are good for the country," he said. "I wish the Republicans would do more of that."

At this gathering of the well-connected and well-heeled, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) suggested another reason for the current confidence. "If the president's exonerated, he'll be the most popular, powerful president of the 20th century."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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