By Ceci Connolly
WORCESTER, Mass., Aug. 27 In his first public appearance since telling Americans he misled them about his 18-month affair with Monica S. Lewinsky, President Clinton attempted to change the subject today to safe schools, terrorism and Hurricane Bonnie.
Everywhere he went in this blue-collar Democratic stronghold from historic Mechanics Hall to a famous local Italian bakery Clinton was greeted enthusiastically by supporters who say they have grown weary of the barrage of scandal news. A smaller, but vocal, contingent of protesters held signs with foreboding messages such as "Liar," "Cheat," "Resign" and "Impeach." One waved a scarlet "A."
Despite earlier hints from aides that Clinton might use today's break from the first family's vacation to again address the Lewinsky scandal, he made no mention of the controversy. The stated purpose of the event was to announce a $30 million scholarship program for aspiring police officers and to release a teachers' guide for detecting troubled youth.
Clinton's political team regarded the day as something of an experiment, a tentative step toward normalcy after weeks in which the Lewinsky investigation has been a near-total preoccupation. It came amid signs that the bleeding of support Clinton has suffered has begun to stabilize.
In recent days, Clinton has phoned what one aide estimated were about 20 members of Congress, mostly Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.), but some Republicans as well. The message, as one senior adviser described it, was one of "apology, explanation, and taking responsibility."
Since Gephardt's Monday comments refusing to rule out the possibility of impeachment, he and Democrats have begun to speak more positively of the president. Daschle, who was reported to be furious at Clinton, urged Democrats to shift their focus from scandal back to policy. "We've got to get back on the agenda, not to change the subject but because that is what the American people want," Daschle said in a telephone interview Wednesday night.
A new poll, meanwhile, found Clinton's approval ratings still holding steady, and that the controversy has done no noticeable damage to Democratic prospects this fall. But Clinton's personal ratings took another beating in the survey by the Pew Research Center, with 62 percent saying they do not like the president, compared with 53 percent in February.
Still unclear is when Clinton plans to go ahead with what aides expect will be a further explanation to the public. The president had discussed making some passing reference to his personal problems and his effort to recover from them at today's event, but he decided late Wednesday night to avoid the subject, said one adviser familiar with the deliberations.
Clinton believed the occasion was not right for such remarks, aides said, and there were hints from staff that he was bridling at their importunings that he must say more about the controversy to halt criticism that followed his Aug. 17 televised address.
"He's not going to be pushed into it by either his staff or the press," one senior adviser said. "My guess it will be more off-the-cuff" when a further statement comes. "A lot of us will learn about it when it happens."
Some aides believe it will be preferable for Clinton to say something about the controversy before he leaves for Russia on Monday, to lessen the odds that the controversy will detract from his official business there, but they said it is not clear whether the president or Hillary Rodham Clinton will agree.
The president will have another opportunity to raise the issue Friday, when he will speak at a church in the heavily black Martha's Vineyard community of Oak Bluffs to commemorate the 35th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s march on Washington. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a veteran civil rights leader, will join him for the occasion.
Mixing in a political event with Clinton's vacation is not unusual. In past years he has usually thrown in a low-key event or two. But today's outing involved considerably more brooding among staff. For several days they hedged on whether Clinton would leave the island; some aides said they knew the event would be watched with greater than usual interest by reporters and others in the political world.
Clinton made only a glancing reference to personal controversy, and it was not even the controversy most people had in mind. He told a well-worn anecdote about a worried parent he met just before the New Hampshire primary in 1992. Clinton noted that it was "a period when I was dropping like a rock in the polls I have some experience with that."
Clinton did not mention the cause of his problems then, an allegation by Gennifer Flowers that she had an affair with Clinton. Instead, Clinton focused on the problem that he said had so worried the parent he met in a hotel kitchen in February 1992: the safety of children.
"Unless we make our communities, our schools and our children safe, prosperity doesn't mean very much," he told a well-dressed crowd of about 1,200 people.
Praising Clinton for adding 100,000 police officers on the beat across the nation, Worcester Police Chief Edward Gardella said: "This president is a man of vision and compassion for all Americans. We can certainly be proud of the fact William Jefferson Clinton is our president."
Of the half-dozen politicians who interrupted their August recess for the hastily arranged event, only Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), running for reelection, made even a veiled reference to the controversy. "This is not a city of fair-weather friends," said McGovern, one of the few Democrats to offer such warm support for Clinton in the wake of the president's admissions. "A friend from Worcester is a friend for life and you, Mr. President, through your policies, have been a true friend of Worcester."
McGovern's GOP opponent, Sen. Matthew Amorello, said he would be embarrassed to stand on a stage with Clinton given his "repugnant behavior and the fact he deceived the American public for seven months."
But Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.) predicted the presidential visit would be a boost. "Look, this fellow is still president of the United States," he said. "He is still the fellow who can help you with all your projects."
The crowd gave Clinton a standing ovation but most of his big applause lines were about others, including McGovern, a local police officer and Hillary Clinton.
"I voted for the president to do a job and he has done an outstanding job," said Sue Hince, a welfare officer in the city. "I would vote for him again." In the audience, one woman held a bright green sign saying: "Christian Nurses Support You."
Although he had hoped Clinton would have been "more contrite" in his Aug. 17 speech, Moakley said he disagrees with many advisers who are urging the president to attempt a second apology. "You don't get a second shot at an apology," he said. "You do it right the first time."
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) was uncharacteristically camera-shy today, loitering 20 feet behind the president as Clinton and McGovern shook hands at the airport with a crowd of schoolchildren. "I don't have anything to say," Kerry said when asked about the Lewinsky controversy. "I'm tired of it." He refused to say whether he personally supports the president, but noted he endorses administration policies on key issues such as crime.
At Clinton's side from his 10 a.m. touch-down in Worcester to the final handshake five hours later was Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), himself no stranger to personal controversy.
"Some days when I get tired and weary, I think, he's been doing this longer than I have," Clinton said.
Clinton spokesman Barry Toiv said the president was "extraordinarily pleased" by today's reception. But what Clinton didn't hear was the judgment of a group of fourth-graders who greeted him at the airport.
"He's very irresponsible," said Damian Kearney. "He shouldn't tell lies."
If one of his friends lied to him, Brian Dardy said he would "feel messed-up inside. If I found out a friend lied, we might not be friends."
Staff writers John F. Harris and Helen Dewar in Washington contributed to this report.
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