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  •   A Struggle to Steer Clear of Clinton

    House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (AP)

    By Ceci Connolly
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, August 27, 1998; Page A08

    LOUISVILLE, Aug. 26—This was to be the week House Democratic leaders barnstormed the country spotlighting a dozen of their most promising candidates. After four dark years in the minority, Democrats believed they finally had the agenda, money and popular president to wrest back control of the House.

    Instead, they and their candidates are being peppered with questions about extramarital sex in the White House and the Democratic Party's definition of family values.

    Of the first five candidates House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) joined this week, not one was eager to host the president.

    Baron Hill, who is well-positioned to replace retiring Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), said there's been no offer of a presidential visit. Would he take advantage of such an offer if it came? "That's not much of an advantage, is it?" he replied.

    For a party that conceded at the start of summer that it needed virtually everything to break its way in November, the presidential scandal is about the worst development possible and could cost them seats in some of the tightest races this year. Democrats say President Clinton's relationship with former intern Monica S. Lewinsky has prompted new anxiety over turnout, fund-raising and the president's ability to use the bully pulpit -- three key ingredients to a strong showing by the party this November.

    Gephardt confronted this new political reality as he campaigned in eight states over three days in an attempt to raise money and publicity for some of the party's hottest political recruits.

    Gail Riecken, another Indiana House candidate, preferred to talk up a recent appearance by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and a visit next week with Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala. As for the president, she said, "He has a great deal of work to do in his own family."

    Others such as Democratic challenger Joe Hoeffel, hoping to unseat Rep. Jon D. Fox (R-Pa.), illustrated the awkwardness of the situation. "As much as I liked the president's policies, I dislike his personal behavior," Hoeffel said when asked about the matter.

    In Scranton, a supporter of House candidate Pat Casey explained the bind many Democratic candidates are in this fall. "Who wants President Clinton around?" said Don Sullivan, a dentist who attended a Gephardt fund-raiser on Casey's behalf. "We are talking about family values here, and the president certainly doesn't espouse family values."

    On the opening day of the tour, Rep. Martin Frost (Tex.), the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said he stands by his earlier prediction that his party has a 50-50 chance of picking up the 11 seats needed to regain the House. But the normally loquacious Frost had little to say on the president's problems other than "Bill Clinton's not on the ticket this year."

    Democratic pollster Fred Yang, who is handling several congressional races, said the greatest fear among political professionals is that Clinton's predicament will discourage Democrats from voting. In the 1974 congressional elections, for instance, turnout was a meager 36 percent. "Even before this happened that was a concern of Democrats," he said. "This just heightens that concern. This is very energizing for Republicans."

    In Bloomington, Ind., Tuesday night, as Gephardt schmoozed with a group of 30 people who gave $250 to Riecken, Mayor John Fernandez reflected on the party's woes. "I don't think as a party we'll be able to do anything on our agenda," he said. "He's been such an incredibly effective president, it's disheartening in terms of the missed opportunities."

    Flabbergasted that a man as smart and talented as Clinton could display such "incredibly bad judgment," the obviously pained Fernandez said the president "should step down" in part to enable other Democrats to refocus the country's attention on them and the campaign themes they are touting.

    Gephardt, on a local radio station Tuesday, called Clinton's behavior "reprehensible" and suggested the country was strong enough to survive impeachment.

    "He brought up the I-word," said host Rob Nyhadt after Gephardt left.

    In fact, throughout the day Tuesday, the top House Democrat repeatedly raised the specter of impeachment proceedings, telling reporters that lawmakers have a duty to scrutinize the pending report of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr "and then make a judgment on whether or not [Clinton] should be expelled from office."

    Today, Gephardt tried to shift the focus to the campaign. He and his aides pointed to favorable poll data and issue-oriented coverage in local newspapers as evidence the scandal is not damaging Democratic prospects. And in a series of interviews, Gephardt spoke in conciliatory terms. "I like the president, I've worked well with him and I trust him," he told Reuters. "I'm as disappointed as anyone about what's happened, but that's history. It's time to move on."

    But that may not be easy. "In the old days, candidates used radio, TV, phones and mail," said Democratic consultant Dane Strother. "The Republicans have added the special prosecutor, who is releasing that report just as challengers are trying to get more traction. That report sucks all the oxygen out of the room."

    Acknowledging the frustration in party ranks, Strother said, "If the president had come forward seven months ago, this would no longer be an issue."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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