Clinton off to good start on final campaign

BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

So, you're a politician and you're in it up to your neck.

The media sharks have picked up the scent they like the most - blood in the water. The hounds are on your tail. Your political enemies, those grinning buzzards, hover overhead.

What do you do?

Well, if you are Bill Clinton, you head for the nearest basketball arena on the first placid Midwestern college campus you can find, fill it with thousands of college students, and wait for the waves of adoration to roll in.

First rule in presidential politics: College students will cheer a ham sandwich, given you put enough of them in one place at the same time. Just stand back and let mob psychology take over.

By Wednesday of last week, the president of the United States, after five days of siege mentality as the Monica Lewinsky story threatened to send his presidency swirling down the drain, really needed to get out of Dodge.

His State of the Union speech the night before had gone over well, despite being delivered under the most bizarre circumstances in the history of the republic.

Going away

But Monica and Kenneth Starr and Linda Tripp and the rest were not going to go away. So, what Mr. Clinton needed more than anything was an old-fashioned campaign trip.

Mr. Clinton got what he was after Wednesday morning in Champaign, Ill., on the campus of the University of Illinois. About 12,000 students packed into Assembly Hall to cheer and stomp and whistle for the president and his good friend Al Gore.

Walking into that arena was like being transported back in time, back to the Clinton-Gore campaigns of '92 and '96. Everything about the event had the look and feel of a campaign rally, even though this lame-duck president has no more campaigns to run.

Well, maybe one more campaign.

The campaign now is to save his presidency, to preserve it for the historians. Given the national polls last week, which showed his job approval rating higher than ever, it is a campaign he appears to be winning, at least in the short run.

By week's end, impeachment or resignation seemed very remote possibilities, although veterans of Watergate realize that sometimes it takes a long time for scandal to percolate.

But this president has always done best politically when outside the Beltway; it is out on the stump in front of friendly crowds that has been his retreat and solace in times of trouble.

With Mr. Clinton out in America's heartland making high-minded speeches to crowds of happy Americans while Hillary Rodham Clinton was back in Washington trying to out-do Oliver Stone with her ''right-wing conspiracy'' theory, how could he not rebound?

Given the kind of highly effective sales job the Clinton White House was doing, you might think that the Republicans on Capitol Hill would be loading grapeshot into their big guns and firing away.

Blasting away

But, until late in the week, we heard barely a peep from Capitol Hill.

The main reason for the silence of the Republicans is that most politicians are smart enough to know that when your enemy is self-destructing, the best course of action is to just stand back and let it happen. If you run up to the scene of the wreck and start throwing gasoline on the fire, you can end up looking like the bad guy.

But, by the end of the week, with the Teflon-coated president managing to keep his head above water, some Republicans could not resist. Particularly those Republicans who believe they have a shot at the White House themselves in 2000.

It is the social conservatives and the religious right who dominate Republican presidential primaries these days. They despised Mr. Clinton to begin with, and now they believe they have proof positive of his moral unfitness. So potential GOP presidential contenders such as Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri and Steve Forbes started blasting away before conservative groups.

Mr. Clinton won't be on the ballot when the primary season rolls around two years from now, but, rest assured, there will be a small army of Republicans running against him anyway.

Howard Wilkinson covers politics for the Enquirer.

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