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Republican Analysts Debate Public Perception of Motives

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 18, 1998; Page A19

The contentious debate over whether to release the videotape of President Clinton's Aug. 17 grand jury testimony has put Republicans face to face with a dilemma they may confront repeatedly as they move toward a possible impeachment inquiry: will decisions they believe are necessary to educate the public be seen as partisan efforts to embarrass the president?

As White House officials and nervous Democrats cling to public opinion polls showing the president's approval rating still strong and the public opposed to impeachment for his lying about his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, Republicans have been looking at other evidence that has encouraged them to keep moving forward. But some GOP strategists warned yesterday that the party could jeopardize the advantages it now enjoys if the public reacts negatively to the release of the Clinton videotape.

Hasty release of the videotape after a nasty partisan argument inside the House Judiciary Committee, said GOP pollster Bill McInturff, "is the only thing I think can reverse how good I feel about" Republican prospects in the midterm elections. Saying Congress must be "solemn, temperate, fair and quick" in its handling of the report of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, McInturff said releasing the videotape "would potentially put Republicans on the course that Democrats could make the charge that our intent is not to get to the bottom of whether the president committed an impeachable act but that we are just trying to embarrass him."

Another top strategist who asked not to be identified also warned against releasing the videotape. "Name me other grand jury testimony that's been released," he said. The initial reaction by the public might be further revulsion toward Clinton, he added, but Republicans could suffer as well. "There are two prices" Republicans could pay, he said. "Do they look like they are politicizing this? And next, if Republicans are the party of liberty, what are we doing releasing grand jury testimony?"

A GOP leadership aide acknowledged the party was in uncharted waters, particularly with the issue of the president's testimony. "So I think there is some uneasiness about this because it's grand jury testimony after all. But the process we are in has its own inertia." He added, "Republicans are not committed to an outcome, they're committed to a process and the public is with them on that."

Most Republicans believe the party's leadership, so far, has handled the impeachment issue skillfully and carefully. But as one strategist put it, "These are sensitive times." Republicans recall the mistakes the party made in the year after they took over the Congress and fear that any excess partisanship, political overreaching or dominance by the party's extremes could create a political backlash against the party.

"The matter is so serious politically that everyone is being on their best behavior, knowing that the wrong spark could set off the underbrush," said Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.).

Former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour said the idea of a backlash "is malarkey" as long as Republicans proceed carefully. "The Democrats are whistling past the graveyard," he said. "It's possible that this won't hurt them very badly. But the idea that it's going to help them" is wrong.

"I see no evidence to date of a backlash," said a party strategist who is monitoring data from around the country.

Democrats say Republicans go against the polls at their peril, but Republicans are paying attention to other evidence that the public -- particularly their own constituents -- strongly supports the course they are following. "The phone calls they're receiving are overwhelming, they are overwhelming," one strategist said.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said his office received more than 1,000 calls on the Clinton-Lewinsky issue on Monday. "We got more calls than we've ever received," McCain said yesterday. And by roughly 5 to 1, he added, the callers said Clinton should resign or be removed from office.

One strategist said the office of a House member from a border state got 300 calls on Tuesday: 15 callers said Clinton should remain in office, the rest said he should go. The volume of calls to Republican offices is as much as five or 10 times above normal, GOP sources said.

Many Republicans believe the calls reflect the sentiments of those likely to vote. "I don't think the national polling data is nearly as important," a former party official said, calling the polls "a lagging indicator." A more important guide for Republicans, he said, will be "what they are hearing in the states and their districts" and "what newspapers in their states and districts are saying."

Many Republicans say releasing the videotape will allow the public to make its own decision about whether Clinton lied under oath about his relationship with Lewinsky. "The story overrides the spin," said Republican pollster Ed Goeas. "The best way not to be partisan is to . . . release it and let the public decide."

Ed Gillespie, former RNC communications director, said, "You can't get ahead of the curve in terms of where the public is and [in] educating the public."

Gillespie noted that despite public opposition to impeachment, some polls suggest that, if there is evidence that Clinton committed perjury or obstructed justice, Congress should investigate further. "Voting to conduct an inquiry into impeachment is not the same as voting impeachment," he said. "There's a process in place. If they keep the public informed and not get ahead of the supply line, that's okay."

Goeas said his analysis of recent polls suggests public opinion is "in transition," and unless Republicans make significant missteps the outlook will continue to improve between now and Election Day.

Another strategist said, "I think people are watching this progress. My opinion is their opinions will change. I take it they're reserving judgment, but you've got a lot of people who are anxious to vote Republican who are very intensely motivated to send this guy a message and send Congress and all elected officials a message."

Still Republicans recognize that this process is not likely to be cost-free, particularly if the public harshly judges those who now sit in judgment of the president. Steve Merksamer, a GOP strategist from California, said Republicans should proceed toward impeachment, regardless of the consequences to the party. "The question to me is not what is in the Republican interest or the Democratic interest," he said. "The question to me is what is in the nation's interest."

But he warned that Congress can only proceed on a bipartisan basis. A partisan decision either to impeach Clinton or not to impeach him, Merksamer added, "will further polarize the country along party lines and I don't know what the political consequences will be. I don't know if it will help Republicans or hurt Republicans, but I know it will hurt the country."

McCain offered this advice to Republicans. "I don't have a clue because I've never seen anything like this: a president's personal [approval] as high and yet the other factors so low. The only thing Republicans should do is read the Constitution and follow their conscience."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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