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Meese makes his case before conservatives

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The Meese offensive comes nine days after the attorney general committed what many critics, including some conservatives, view as his biggest blunder yet. Last week he fired his public affairs director, Terry Eastland, reportedly because Mr. Eastland had not defended the attorney general aggressively enough. Meese disputes that account.

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Conservatives, who had considered Mr. Eastland an effective spokesman for the Reagan judicial agenda, were outraged, and many criticized Meese's decision.

After the dust settled, some conservatives began to see the firing not as a blunder but a signal that Meese is here to stay. ``If Ed Meese is going to resign, then there's no need to dismiss Terry,'' one administration official notes. ``He's bringing up his best troops for the big battle.''

That battle will begin anew when the independent counsel who has been investigating Meese for the last year issues his report within the next few weeks. The report is not expected to accuse Meese of any illegal acts. If it is critical of Meese's ethics, however, as some expect, it will likely spark new calls for his resignation.

A few days after the report is issued, the battle will heat up again when two top Justice Department officials who resigned in March will testify before the Senate on their reasons for quitting.

Over the last few weeks, the attorney general may have snatched victory out of the jaws of defeat. He has received grudging support among moderates in the White House, and more vocal support among conservatives in general. If Meese can successfully woo congressional Republicans, he may have won over the last constituency that could persuade the President to ask for his resignation.

Even the Eastland dismissal contained a silver lining for Meese. Many conservatives were sobered by the attention that their criticisms of Meese received in the press last week.

Now they are portraying the firing as a ``family squabble,'' and over the last week have rallied around the attorney general. Last Wednesday, for example, the board of directors at the American Conservative Union voted ``without dissent to urge the attorney general to stay on and fight,'' executive director Daniel L. Casey says. Other events are being scheduled as a direct ``show of support'' for Meese, Louis Cordia at the conservative Heritage Foundation says. ``There's a backlash against the backlash'' against Meese, says Mr. Casey. He adds that the press, including recent columns in the Washington Post, is beginning to pick up the President's oft-heard refrain that Meese should be held innocent until proven guilty.

Most acknowledge that the attorney general is not home free. There is still a ``short list'' of names of possible replacements for Meese, including Illinois Gov. James Thompson, former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, and Rudolph Giuliani, the US attorney in New York City.

But the most important Meese advocate shows no signs of wavering. The President appears to be determined that Meese not repeat the experience of former Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan, who left office when he was under indictment. After he was acquitted, Mr. Donovan asked, ``Which office do I go to, to get my reputation back?''

Unless the President is convinced that his attorney general and friend of 21 years has committed a crime, Edwin Meese is likely to remain in office as long as he chooses.