By John F. Harris
LA CROSSE, Wis., Jan. 28—President Clinton took his offensive to shift attention from the scandal that grips his presidency to the heartland today with a pair of campaign-style appearances promoting his State of the Union agenda of reforming Social Security and improving schools.
Joined by an exuberant Vice President Gore, Clinton again made no mention of charges that he had an affair with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky and then urged her to lie about it, which he has denied. First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and White House officials made clear today that the president would have nothing more to say on the subject in the foreseeable future.
Today's trip was an experiment of sorts, to see whether Clinton can keep the country focused more on his agenda than on the unfolding scandal in Washington, but the initial evidence today was that people care about both.
Sizable crowds cheered the president, occasionally with enthusiasm, during appearances in Champaign, Ill., and here near the banks of the Mississippi River, reinforcing overnight reaction to his speech to Congress on Tuesday night that pushed his job approval ratings to the highest levels of his presidency.
But in interviews after Clinton spoke today, many people acknowledged that their confidence in the president had been shaken and said they needed to know more before deciding whether they believe his denials.
Moments after ecstatically shaking Clinton's hand after his rally here, Denise Krogman, a volunteer activist, confessed, "I have major concerns. If he did something inappropriate, he ought to say so. I can respect that. It's the dishonesty I worry about. Having trust and a moral ethic is essential. It's not an option."
But Mary Winchell, asked if she believes the president's denials, said, "I believe in the policies he's put forth." Then she added more emphatically, "I believe it's not true."
While Clinton and Gore ignored the scandal in their remarks, Hillary Clinton for the second day in a row aggressively defended her husband in an early morning television interview. "I can state unequivocally that, as my husband has said, these are false allegations," she said on ABC's "Good Morning America."
But, she said, "You won't hear any more from Vernon Jordan, you won't hear any more from my husband, because they have to abide by the rules that they operate under when they have these investigations."
Jordan, a prominent Washington attorney and Clinton friend, has been subpoenaed by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr because of allegations that he too had urged Lewinsky to deny that she had an affair with Clinton.
The White House decision to not discuss any details involving Lewinsky contrasted with the president's own words last Thursday. Then, he told reporters he would provide "as many answers as we can" consistent with his obligation to cooperate with the Starr's investigation. "I'd like for you to have more rather than less, sooner rather than later," he said.
The current White House damage-control strategy is to cling tightly to all information about Clinton's relationship with the 24-year-old former intern until lawyers can learn more about where Starr's investigation is heading and what Lewinsky plans to say. Until she makes her intentions known, Clinton hopes to demonstrate that he is not distracted and is focused on the business of the country. Even so, Gore's introduction of Clinton at the University of Illinois seemed freighted with extra meaning. Raising his voice to a gravelly roar, Gore enthusiastically described Clinton as "my friend" and exhorted the crowd to "join me in supporting him and standing by his side."
Clinton aides had to laugh off some unfortunate symbolism. While trying to depart Champaign for La Crosse, Air Force One rolled off the runway and got stuck in the mud. The president was delayed for an hour while a replacement plane was flown from a nearby air base.
When Clinton finally arrived, he could see that some opponents had written in giant letters a single word on the snowy banks of the river: "IMPEACH."
But there were few signs today that this sentiment was widely held. The field house at Champaign was crammed with some 10,000 people, and so many people turned out that the event organizers had to send people into two overflow auditoriums.
But some who were publicly cheering said they were privately brooding. "I don't know yet" what to think about the Lewinsky allegations, said 46-year-old Louis Rice in Champaign. "I don't want to believe he could be so incredibly stupid."
His wife, Sandy Rice, said she was reassured that Clinton had flatly denied the allegations but confessed that she is not certain she believes him. "It's hard for me to believe that these stories would be made up out of nothing."
But both Rices said allegations of adultery, even if an element of deceit was involved, were not something to dislodge a president over.
Clinton said he hoped the American people would join him in his effort to assure "elemental retirement security" for current and future generations.
"I want us to think about intergenerational responsibilities," he said here during an afternoon rally. "I saw a survey the other day that people in their twenties think it's more likely they'll see UFOs than that they'll ever get to collect Social Security."
At the moment, Social Security takes in more money in payroll taxes than it pays out to retirees. Clinton asserted that he and congressional leaders will make whatever changes are necessary now to avert bankruptcy in the next century, when the retirement of the baby boom generation will push the trust fund into the red. Clinton said he will promote and have his administration participate in a series of regional forums on the issue jointly sponsored by the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan group promoting fiscal responsibility, and the American Association of Retired Persons.
"I don't know anybody in my generation who believes that we ought to just take it out on you and put up our feet when we turn 65," he said.
On education, Clinton stressed the importance of raising school standards. "While America has the best higher-education system in the world," he said, "we need to improve elementary and secondary education.
White House aides said they were pleased by the reception given the State of the Union address and the positive overnight polls. One adviser said buoyantly, "Even after an enormous media blitz against him, he's still personally ahead of levels with which he was elected."
But they warned that Clinton's numbers are likely to go up and down frequently depending on the latest news about Lewinsky. "This is a long-term battle" against Starr, one senior adviser said.
Gore, who has a reputation for flat speaking, displayed the kind of passion he typically has reserved for the closing days of election campaigns. "How do you like our new medication?" one Clinton aide joked, as Gore was bellowing to the crowd in Champaign.
Staff writer Dan Balz contributed to this report from Washington.
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