By John F. Harris
A loose coalition of unions and liberal activists is planning to raise several million dollars to be spent on television ads next month supporting President Clinton and accusing Republicans of pursuing personal scandal at the expense of other issues, according to sources familiar with the plans.
The liberal group People for the American Way began planning a week ago for what its leaders hope will be an aggressive air campaign to help Democrats in the Nov. 3 midterm elections by excoriating the GOP for being too "focused on scandal and partisanship" while neglecting the Democratic education agenda, said Mike Lux, a senior vice president for the group.
In recent days other potent Democratic interest groups, including the AFL-CIO, have expressed interest in sponsoring an independent TV campaign with the twin goals of strengthening Clinton in his battle to remain in office and helping encourage Democratic turnout in the elections, according to Democratic sources familiar with the plans.
Some House Democratic staff members said they are worried that a pro-Clinton campaign -- with a budget of at least $3 million to $4 million -- would siphon off money needed by House candidates. This anxiety comes at a time when House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) is already irked at White House officials for what he believes was their approval of a bellicose public defense of Clinton Sunday by strategist James Carville.
On NBC's "Meet the Press," Carville launched a rhetorical barrage against independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Aides to Gephardt complained to the White House, according to congressional and administration officials. The House's top Democrat believes that Carville's partisanship is at odds with the more judicious tone he believes his party should be setting, as Democrats try to build momentum for negotiating a reprimand of Clinton as an alternative to impeachment.
One senior House Democratic aide said the White House was overreacting to polls showing rising support for Clinton and impatience for prolonging the investigation into Clinton's extramarital affair with Monica S. Lewinsky and his lying to the nation about it. "This is what they always do -- they take a poll," this senior aide said. "Instead of allowing us time to build our case, they want the instant gratification you can get from a headline."
House members who support censure but don't want to appear to be Clinton shills were hurt by the effort to "make this a purely partisan issue," the aide said, noting that an attack on Gingrich was especially unwise since, "if we ever do get to negotiating this, it's going to be with Republicans."
Publicly, White House press secretary Michael McCurry yesterday told reporters the same thing other Clinton aides privately told Gephardt's office -- that Carville, a Clinton adviser since he ran Clinton's 1992 campaign, speaks only for himself. Carville speaks daily with senior White House aides and often coordinates his statements with them. Clinton, along with first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Gore, in recent days has ratcheted up rhetoric against a Congress he said has been more interested in scoring partisan points than passing legislation.
Carville -- who on Sunday said he wanted to open a "new front" against Gingrich as part of his ongoing "war" against Starr -- was unrepentant in an interview yesterday. "I do what I want to do; I don't answer to the White House," Carville said. He vowed to attack what he sees as the unfairness of the campaign against Clinton even "if it offends the sensibilities of some Capitol Hill staffers."
Those sensibilities were further chafed by news of the incipient ad campaign. For the time being, the efforts by the coalition of unions and People for the American Way are occurring on separate tracks, but several Democratic sources close to Clinton said the White House expectation is that the two will be combined into a single campaign.
People for the American Way, founded by television producer Norman Lear, is holding a meeting Thursday morning with a number of "progressive allies" to discuss plans for "getting out the progressive vote," including TV advertising, Lux said. Among the union groups that have expressed interest in helping Clinton with ads is the AFL-CIO's American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.
If the planning for ads comes to fruition, it seems likely that there would be a significant degree of coordination with the White House. Some Democratic aides said there had been discussions of having the ads produced by the political team of Robert Squier and Bill Knapp, who produced Clinton's 1996 ads.
Some Democrats are hoping the planned campaign never gets off the ground. Olivia Morgan, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said if the reports she heard about pro-Clinton ads are true, "we're concerned that there would be any diverting of funds from the election effort.
"Obviously there's a set amount of resources and it's a zero-sum game," Morgan said. "We'd like to stay focused on the number-one issue at hand -- which is electing Democrats."
A senior White House official took offense at this grousing, noting that Clinton has taken considerable criticism -- including from Gingrich last weekend -- over his extensive fund-raising efforts for congressional Democrats. "This sure is a funny way to say thank you," the aide said.
Staff writers Dan Balz and Frank Swoboda contributed to this report.
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