Clinton's Political Armor Undented by Jones

Polls show Clinton's popularity unscathed by weekend deposition in harassment suit.

As President Clinton prepares for his state of the union address next week, the latest spate of publicity about the Paula Jones case appears to have done little to diminish his sequoia-high popularity ratings.

The case, in which Mr. Clinton is being sued for alleged sexual harassment, had loomed large before Saturday's videotaped questioning. No sitting president has ever before been questioned as a defendant in a case.

But unless he is convincingly implicated during the May 27 trial, analysts don't see significant political or popular fallout from the case. "I don't sense it's gaining a lot of traction," observes Michael Johnston, a professor of political science at Colgate College in Hamilton, N.Y.

Adding to the muted impact is the gag order by US District Judge Susan Webber Wright that forbids both sides from commenting on the case.

The lack of political damage, say Mr. Johnston and others, is due to several factors.

The accusations have been in the public realm for years and people have decided whom they believe. In fact, opinions have swung in Clinton's favor. A Time/CNN poll released over the weekend shows that 42 percent of Americans believe Clinton (up from 36 percent in June), while 28 percent believe Ms. Jones (down from 37 percent in June.)

Because of the moral and ethical cloud Clinton has operated under, including the Whitewater case and an alleged affair with Gennifer Flowers, many tend to judge Clinton the man separately from Clinton the president.

"What we are seeing is nothing new," says Johnston who sees the lasting legacy of the case as the precedent set for future presidents facing legal action.

Moreover, Clinton supporters have charged that Jones's motives are tainted by the strong partisan ties to conservative groups, including the Rutherford Institute. The Charlottesville, Va., legal organization is dedicated to preserving religious freedom and is helping to fund Jones's case.

Even the Rutherford Institute's president, John Whitehead, concedes the case so far is having little effect on the president's 59 percent approval ratings. "Sometimes I'm really perplexed," Mr. Whitehead says.

And Republicans in Congress generally see more political gain in legislating than exploiting the Jones case. "It is important to distinguish between right-wing institutions who want to create scandal, and Republican lawmakers who have to show a legacy for what they've done," says Johnston.

Some historians suggest that the case diminishes the effectiveness of the president on the world stage. But others disagree.

"I just got back from Britain. The front pages there are filled with stories of [Foreign Secretary] Robin Cook and his mistress, they have sex scandals in the cabinet. [In France, Franois] Mitterrand kept a dual family. The Chinese don't care," says George Edwards, director of the Center for Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University.

Nevertheless, the White House remains divided about the best course ahead. Some of the president's aides hope for an out-of-court settlement. Others say a trial is the best way for to lay the charges to rest.

If Jones prevails in court, it could hurt Democrats, particularly Vice President Al Gore, who might otherwise capitalize on the president's coattails in the 2000 election. "If it turns out [Clinton] is a bald-faced liar then that ... would energize Republicans, who cannot effectively use the issue now without seeming unseemly," says Mr. Edwards.

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