By David S. Broder and Ceci Connolly
Democrats waited last night with growing apprehension for the public verdict on President Clinton's future.
As members of Congress headed home after the release of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report on the White House scandal, many of their political consultants agreed privately with the judgment of former senator Paul Simon (D-Ill.): "Things are starting to unravel for the administration."
Republican reaction was summarized by GOP consultant Michael Murphy. "He's in huge trouble," Murphy said. "He's lost his ability to lead and set the national debate."
Whatever the potential political damage to Clinton and his party, most members of Congress and political operatives said the odds against his impeachment and conviction remained high.
"There's a very high standard for impeachment," said Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.), a leader of arguably the most conservative faction of House Republicans. "You really need to have a compelling case, not just a partisan case."
Many of those interviewed in the first hours after Starr's 453-page report was released cautioned that it might be days before the full public reaction to the detailed description of Clinton's affair with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky can be gauged. But the first impression was that, even though the report had been expected for months, it was a further blow to a president whose personal approval ratings had already been on the skids.
"The more that the dialogue moves from the general and speculative to specific and factual, the slipperier the hill gets for Bill Clinton," said Democratic pollster Alan Secrest.
Some of the president's supporters expressed personal outrage at the explicit descriptions of sexual encounters in the Starr report and predicted there would be a public backlash against what one House member called the "vendetta" by the independent counsel.
"It's a weak case at best for impeachment," said Rep. Chakah Fattah (D-Pa.) "It really raises the question of Starr's motives." Another House Democrat, who declined to be quoted by name, said, "If he gets through this week and there's a backlash and people resent Starr for bringing all this crap into their living room, then maybe he could level out."
The release of the massive, sexually explicit report barely more than seven weeks before the midterm election created an unprecedented political environment. Few in either party were ready to bet heavily on how the public will react.
"It all depends on what seeing this in print does to the American people. There's nothing new in here. There's no smoking gun," said Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "But I think the stark, written word will have an impact, and if the American people are totally shocked, it will register in Congress."
Jeff Eller, a White House spokesman during Clinton's first term and now a Texas-based political consultant, agreed that the situation is volatile. "By this time on Sunday, the American people are going to have a full, unadulterated, head-on dose of some of the most personal and graphic descriptions of things about their president," he said. "That is going to take some time to absorb and some time for them to analyze."
Some veterans of past political wars, however, were ready to venture predictions.
Former Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) said, "I think the House will report bills of impeachment. "It all depends on what seeing this in print does to the American people. ... I think the stark, written word will have an impact, and if the American people are totally shocked, it will register in Congress."
Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.)
I've not heard anyone really stand up to defend him. But I'm not certain what the Senate will do. It takes a lot to move that body."
Even if Clinton remains in office, many said he would never overcome the damage that has been inflicted by his admission that he lied in an effort to conceal his relationship with Lewinsky.
Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) said, "He may cling to office the way Lyndon Johnson did in his last year, but he will not be able to claim any respect anywhere sympathy perhaps, but not respect."
Stephen Wayne, a Georgetown University expert on the presidency, said the combination of Clinton's initial lies and belated apologies has destroyed his credibility. "When it comes to personal things, he has operated for so long in a self-interested, self-aggrandizing manner, we are less apt to believe him."
Simon, now teaching at Southern Illinois University, said he had been in Washington for several days visiting with old colleagues in the Capitol. "There is more and more talk about resignation. We should not be hasty," he said. "I'm sure there will be political fallout. It simply adds to public cynicism, but the greater damage will be on the Democratic side."
Simon's point was bolstered by a variety of public and private polls conducted in recent days. Although Clinton's job approval rating has remained strong, analysts found other troubling indicators for Democrats. Specifically, the surveys found a sharp drop in the president's personal approval rating, renewed interest in moral issues and gains for the GOP in congressional races.
Steve Mitchell, an independent Michigan pollster, said three surveys taken in his state in late August "all showed [Clinton's] favorables dropping, and that means his job approval ultimately will fall, too."
GOP pollster Bill McInturff said, "Generally, this week we're seeing a net 6- or 8-point movement to Republican candidates. The environment is shifting very against Democrats."
A new poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found senior citizens shifting allegiance rapidly from Clinton and his Democratic Party to the Republicans. "Now, older people are solidly on the side of the GOP," the survey found, noting that 55 percent of elderly view the Republican Party favorably and only 36 percent view it unfavorably.
The erosion in grass-roots support could ultimately affect Clinton's chances of surviving an impeachment move. But middle-ground lawmakers of both parties said yesterday they were still reluctant to contemplate that step.
Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), a moderate, said of Clinton, "He's probably at his lowest ebb right now. We have to focus on the question, 'Did he abuse the powers of his office?' He'll have a chance to answer the Starr report. I'm quite undecided now."
Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), another moderate, said, "I want to read the report to see if in fact he is accused of lying or getting members of his staff to lie. ... Those are impeachable offenses."
Another moderate Republican, speaking on background, said if the charges against Clinton stem solely from his sexual affair, he seriously doubts the president will be impeached. But this lawmaker voiced sympathy for those on the Democratic side of the aisle: "This guy has cost the Democrats three friggin' elections and now he's asking them to stand up for him."
Staff writers Helen Dewar and Eric Pianin and staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
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