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Impeachment Trial Over, but Heat Still on Sen. Robb

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  • By Spencer S. Hsu
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, February 16, 1999; Page B2

    Lining up at the head of Alexandria's Presidents' Day parade, Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.) replied jauntily when a TV news crew asked yesterday if he felt "liberated" by the completion of the Senate's historic impeachment duties last week.

    "Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last!" said a smiling Robb, throwing his uplifted hands out wide.

    Back home after a five-week trial, in a political ritual repeated by senators across the country, Robb and fellow Virginia Sen. John W. Warner (R) waded with relief into enthusiastic crowds this weekend, as voters mostly gave "thumbs-up" verdicts on the lawmakers' roles in the Senate trial. But for Robb at least, as even he acknowledges, the legacy of impeachment is far from settled.

    Widely seen as the most vulnerable incumbent senator seeking reelection in 2000, Robb, 59, said he expects his votes to acquit President Clinton on perjury and obstruction of justice charges mainly to mobilize conservative Republicans against him.

    His likely GOP challenger in 2000, former governor George Allen, made his most direct attack on Clinton in a critique of Robb's votes last week. With the election still 21 months off, both men have raced to define the political import of the president's trial, with Robb casting his judgment as a matter of conscience and law, and Allen accusing the Democrat of walking in "lock step" with a disgraced president.

    Despite polls showing that 55 percent of Virginians want Clinton to stay in office, Robb said, "it's the people who don't get the result they want that tend to remember longer as a political matter. That's just a fact of life.

    "I did my best to do my duty under the Constitution," added the two-term senator, who drafted a dense, four-page impeachment statement and posted it on his page on the Senate's Web site at www.senate.gov. "I would hope people believed that I attempted to fulfill my oath to render impartial justice and I did it conscientiously.

    Yesterday, few voters asked about such matters as Robb led a festive walk through Old Town Alexandria in George Washington's honor, stopping to chat with African American equestrians, antique U.S. Army equipment collectors, Washington impersonators and friendly Democrats.

    "Good vote!" shouted Jim Turner, 63, a retired chemical industry editor from Falls Church, one of many in this Robb-friendly corner of Northern Virginia who offered support. However, one Democrat with a video camera yelled, "Just keep the president away from my daughter!"

    Karen Boutilier, 52, of Alexandria, who voted for Robb in 1994 said yesterday that she was tired of the impeachment story. "I don't believe it will have any effect one way or another."

    Still, Republicans seem to be counting on tying Robb to Clinton. Now a lawyer in Richmond, Allen, 46, spent the eve of the Senate's decisive Friday vote just blocks away at the National Republican Senatorial Committee's headquarters.

    Allen, emerging from a reception where about 165 K Street lobbyists and potential contributors signed up to meet him, scathingly criticized the president while refusing to say how he would have voted on removing him.

    "I do find it absolutely amazing as the trial was going forward there were so many on the other side who said . . . we don't want to hear witnesses, don't bother us, we've made our decision just walking in lock step," said Allen, who said he agreed with the House impeachment votes and wanted a longer trial to determine the facts.

    Asked if he would make an issue of Robb's vote, Allen said he looked forward to electing a president in 2000 who could be a role model, adding, "I don't care what excuses they make for this disgraceful, shameful, lying, deceitful behavior on the part of President Clinton."

    For Allen, analysts say, such remarks play with fire. With the public fed up with scandal, voters may resist character attacks. Such a judgment would be welcome for Robb, whose 1994 reelection overcame withering revelations about his private conduct while governor in the early 1980s, including allegations of womanizing.

    "In a strange way, this whole scandal may have taken an issue away from Republicans in the year 2000 against Robb," said Mark J. Rozell, a District-based political scientist with the University of Pennsylvania.

    Virginia Republicans could struggle if they are identified too closely with their more ideologically extreme congressional wing, agreed Richmond political scientist Robert D. Holsworth, of Virginia Commonwealth University.

    "The potential damage to Allen's candidacy is that public distaste for Washington Republicans could rub off on him some way," Holsworth said. "Certainly I think this is how the Robb campaign is going to be framed."

    Mindful of such risks, Republican Warner, 71, put impeachment behind him yesterday, as he greeted well-wishers with Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) at a Mount Vernon bicentennial celebration for George Washington.

    "It was a tough decision to make," said Warner, who voted that Clinton "not guilty" of perjury but guilty of obstructing justice. "Now we go on from here."


    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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