Clinton's Big Edge: Personal Appeal

IF Bill Clinton was going to run for Mr. Sociability next year, he would probably be reelected. As he hosted a party on the White House south lawn a few evenings ago, the president showed once again how personable and charming he can be.

This time Mr. Clinton strutted his stuff at a picnic for the press. As he walked around the tables, warmly greeting reporters who, for the most part, have been sharply critical of his performance of late, the president was reminding us that he's a world-class politician.

When political reporters go to a party, they never get away from talking about their major interest in life: politics. Oh, yes, on this particular evening they were also extolling the merits of the food, especially the strawberry shortcake topped with ice cream. And they were giving the weather high marks simply because a threatened thunderstorm had not arrived.

But as I roamed about, I frequently heard these journalists chewing over the prospects for the presidential race just over the horizon. An often-heard comment: that there was no one among the present crop of GOP challengers who could match Clinton when it comes to campaigning.

Now just because Clinton is such a likable fellow when he is out on the hustings pressing the flesh and being folksy and warm, it doesn't mean that will be enough for him to hang on to his job. But that attribute will take him far, particularly if his opponent is a Bob Dole or a Phil Gramm, the present Republican leaders in the polls. Lamar Alexander is the most personable among the GOP aspirants. But as a campaigner Alexander has yet to show he is in the president's class.

A new Washington Post-ABC poll suggests that Americans are divided down the middle on the issues now being hotly debated in the country: balancing the federal budget, flag burning, affirmative action, abortion, and normalizing diplomatic relations with Vietnam. If that equal division on the hot-button issues is still around at election time in '96, it is arguable that the winner will be the candidate the voters find most appealing.

This poll also shows Clinton has an approval rating of about 50 percent. That's not high, but the poll shows it is enough for the president to narrowly beat Dole in a two-way race and to become the winner over Dole and Colin Powell in a three-way race where Powell would be running as an independent.

At a recent gathering of Republican Party leaders there was no dearth of optimism for next year. In their public utterances these politicians were portraying Clinton as a failed president on his way out.

But in off-the-record comments many of these state chairpersons were conceding that Clinton was a better campaigner than any of those in the current GOP field of contenders and that this campaigning edge might well reelect the president.

Again and again these leaders confided to reporters that they wished they could find ''another Ronald Reagan'' to run against Clinton.

In private discussions GOP leaders and strategists are saying they wished that the personable Jack Kemp had stayed in the primaries. Kemp dropped out because he had no stomach for the fund-raising role he would have to assume to finance an effective campaign. Could he somehow be lured back into the race? I understand that several highly influential Republicans are urging Kemp to change his mind.

Actually, at a Monitor breakfast the other morning Mr. Kemp opened the door to possibly entering the race for the nomination - ''If there is no one advancing the pro-growth agenda or talking about these issues, I would seriously consider it.'' By ''these issues'' Kemp was referring to positions in support of racial harmony, which he passionately advocates.

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