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White House Strategy Evolving Day by Day

By Dan Balz and Helen Dewar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 17, 1998; Page A15

In the gallows humor that has enveloped the Democratic defenders of President Clinton, success in saving the president is measured day by day. And in the eyes of many of those same Democrats, the White House strategy for assuring the president's survival is being developed on roughly the same schedule.

"I think their only strategy right now is to get through the day," a congressional Democrat said yesterday. "If they have a long-term strategy, they haven't shared it with us. They're all breathing a sigh of relief that he's still standing after the report [of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr]."

"There is no strategy at all," a Democratic senator said, adding, "They're trying to figure out how to get some footing, some traction. . . . Everyone feels cornered, like [Confederate Gen. Robert E.] Lee at Gettysburg. He may not like the ground, but he's there."

At the White House, the complaints from Democrats on Capitol Hill represent just one of a series of brush fires officials are scrambling to contain as they attempt to put together a more credible plan for counteracting an impeachment inquiry by the House Judiciary Committee that even they believe is increasingly likely.

They must deal simultaneously with rumors of defections by nervous Democratic elected officials, the pending release of the president's Aug. 17 testimony before Starr's grand jury and other documents, and an ongoing effort by the president's political advisers to wrest control of decision-making from Clinton's lawyers, who have maintained the upper hand throughout the eight-month scandal.

"We don't have a magic bullet," a senior Clinton adviser said. "We have to go out and keep pounding and pounding through this."

Over time, the president's advisers believe, public opinion may save him, if the polls continue to show no significant erosion in his approval rating and the public remains opposed to impeachment. But White House officials and their Democratic allies recognize that public attitudes may be more complicated than the polls suggest -- and that the mood could shift depending on what else people learn about the president's behavior.

"One of the issues is whether this is a trickle-up or a trickle-down situation," said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "If public opinion trickles up to Congress, the president is better off. If elite opinion trickles down to the public, the president is less well off. Part of what has to happen here is to make sure there is a track that is helping to solidify public opinion on the president's side and have that trickle up to Congress."

The top priority right now, said an outside adviser to the White House, is "showing the president back to doing business," a part of the strategy that was on display yesterday in the form of Clinton's joint news conference with Czech President Vaclav Havel, and Monday with the president's speech about the global economic crisis.

But there is much more involved in the effort to save Clinton's presidency. The White House has begun a massive campaign, particularly in Washington, to help persuade nervous elected Democrats to hold their fire and to communicate to anyone who will listen the argument that Clinton's behavior in his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, no matter how repugnant, does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense.

White House officials have started to enlist help from Democratic lawyers and lobbyists, pollsters and media experts in an effort to stay abreast of nervousness on Capitol Hill and respond to it rapidly, directly and, if necessary, with high-level intervention by the White House.

Led by White House deputy chief of staff John Podesta, these officials are now in regular communication with a large circle of Democrats, through conference calls, individual conversations and unsolicited advice. Their belief is that they cannot solve Clinton's problems quickly or easily or with one or two people.

"They're trying to put out as many fires as possible," said one outside adviser. "Who needs to be attended to -- that's obviously where the fight is now."

The focus of these efforts this week has largely been on the Senate, in part because of fears that any of a handful of Democratic senators might publicly call on Clinton to resign. The Senate is "their long-term savior, but it is their day-to-day crisis," said one Democrat.

Despite the worries this week about Senate defections, White House officials believe the Senate represents Clinton's most important line of defense against impeachment. The House, they believe, is far more polarized politically and Republicans there have been less cooperative on legislative issues. They also note that it takes only a simple majority in the House to vote for articles of impeachment.

In the Senate, Clinton's opponents would require 67 votes to remove him from office. White House officials and Democratic allies believe that in time it may be possible to put together an effort that includes some moderate Senate Republicans that would call for censuring the president as an alternative to impeachment.

One sign of the concern about the Senate was the decision to recruit two former White House officials with close ties to the Senate, Steve Richetti and Susan Brophy, to rejoin the staff on a temporary basis and focus on the members there.

But as the White House concentrated on the Senate, things in the House appeared to grow worse yesterday as members braced for the release of the video tape of Clinton's testimony, and a controversy erupted over an Internet report about a 30-year-old extramarital affair by House Judiciary Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) "Things are squishier here than they were yesterday," a House Democrat said.

White House officials remain fixated on the polls. But they are taking no chances. Officials have begun to ask other Democratic pollsters with good relationships on Capitol Hill to help make the case that things are not as dire as they may seem inside the Beltway.

Beyond the day-to-day problems, the president's allies see the battle ahead in phases. They include the period between now and the time Congress adjourns in October; the midterm elections that they expect to bring Democratic losses in both the House and Senate; and the potential for a long and bitter impeachment fight.

The most significant of the short-term goals is to prevent the House from launching an impeachment inquiry, based on the fear that once the machinery of impeachment is set in motion, the damage to Clinton will increase significantly, even if he survives. Key Democratic advisers to the White House say this involves more than a call for partisan solidarity on Capitol Hill. They recognize that some Democrats will need to be persuaded on the merits that Clinton's behavior doesn't warrant removal or resignation, regardless of where public opinion is on the issue.

Many of these advisers expect the White House will lose the fight to prevent an inquiry, but a senior official said the fall-back strategy is to make any vote in the House appear as partisan as possible in hopes of creating a backlash against the Republicans by the American people.

Some Democrats said they see signs of improvement at the White House. "I think the White House is actually managing it pretty well," said one former administration official, who pointed to mistakes over the weekend in having Clinton's lawyers argue on television that he had not lied under oath. "There was a time a few weeks ago when they were not together. Now it looks like they are."

But that has not yet become clear even to those people on the receiving end of the strategy. "If there is a strategy, it hasn't been imparted to me," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.). "I know of no White House strategy for the Senate, nor is there any by the Senate [Democratic] leadership . . . to seek a caucus position" on what to do, he added. Nor, Biden argued, should there be one. "We're down to individual responsibility to fulfill our constitutional duties," he said.

Staff writer John F. Harris contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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