WASHINGTON — When Mary Albrecht, a mother of three teenagers in St. Louis, watches President Clinton's televised State of the Union address tonight, she'll have one thing on her mind.
"The country's main role model - the most well-known person in the nation - has very little conscience about infidelity," says Ms. Albrecht, sitting in the bleachers at her daughter's high school basketball game.
"Right now I'm trying to teach [my children] about chastity," she sighs. "[Mr. Clinton's conduct] is not helping."
But in Los Angeles, schoolteacher Stephen Schullo shrugs off the alleged indiscretions, which Clinton strenously denies. "It doesn't make any difference," says Mr. Schullo. Instead, he praises the nation's "phenomenal" economic performance.
Can Clinton lead the country effectively amid the torrent of sexual and criminal allegations swirling around him? Or has he lost the respect and public trust vital to his office?
The answers, to a degree, lie in the mix of sentiments emerging from Main Street America.
Until last week, Clinton was widely viewed as on a roll, as he unveiled a string of new social initiatives - from child-care subsidies to expanding Medicare - and basked in high popularity and performance ratings.
Meanwhile, public optimism about the nation's well-being had reached the highest levels in years, and in some cases decades, boosted by a humming economy, robust stock market, anticipated budget surplus, and falling crime rates, polls show.
"Happy days are here again," chimed one newspaper recently, reflecting the almost giddy atmosphere. "[This decade] might be called The Good News '90s," another paper beamed.
But the presidential bubble burst on Wednesday when news broke that Clinton is under investigation for allegedly urging former White House intern Monica Lewinsky to lie about the 18-month-long affair she reportedly says on tape she had with him. She has also denied in a written affidavit that there was an affair.
Since then, Clinton's job performance rating, while still high, has dipped, according to a CBS poll. Meanwhile, an NBC poll showed that his popularity has fallen sharply, dropping 15 percentage points amid the recent allegations.
Although many Americans are reserving judgment on whether Clinton committed the criminal act of obstruction of justice, nearly half said that if found guilty he should be impeached, according to a Newsweek poll.
Moreover, much of the public suspects that the president did have a sexual relationship with Ms. Lewinsky and that his repeated denials show a lack of honesty and integrity, according to NBC and ABC polls.
Morals vs. pragmatism
But does it matter? Does an affair by the president impair his ability to lead? On this question, Americans around the country appear divided between those for whom morality is paramount and those who take a more pragmatic view.
"If you lie and cheat in your bedroom, you can lie and cheat in how you treat Americans," says Kelly, a single professional woman from Alexandria, Va., as she stopped at a bagel shop last week. "You can't trust him," she says, expressing a sentiment shared by many.
"What scares me is if he perjures himself in this aspect, what is he going to do with all these foreign issues?" asks Ann Silvey in Phoenix, where calls to an afternoon talk show last week were running against Clinton 3 to 1.
Others, however, argue that the sex scandal had been blown far out of proportion. Instead, they chose to judge the president according to broad measures of the country's health, such as the economy and crime.
Glen Villalobos, a small-business owner from Mandeville, La., says the economic upturn in recent years encouraged him to start his own consulting firm and helped it grow. "It's good news and it makes us feel good," says Mr. Villalobos, who is optimistic about the future for US companies. A Republican who voted for Clinton, Villalobos says he pays little attention to the sexual allegations against the president. "He's got to run the country, so let him do his job," he says.
In Los Angeles, Mr. Schullo, the first in his family to graduate from college, credits his "unbelievable" financial success - he owns a house in L.A. and a condo in Palm Springs, Calif. - to a hot stock market and booming economy.
"The economy is really going to take off - barring wars or any kind of catastrophe," Schullo predicts. For him, Clinton's character is a nonissue; what counts is whether the president delivers the goods.
Splits at all economic levels
To be sure, many Americans are not feeling the effects of a strong economy or lower crime rates. But among these people, views of Clinton are also mixed.
Tammy Arnold, a single mother of three in Lomita, Calif., who has been on welfare in recent years, says she doesn't trust Clinton. Still, her top priority is to obtain better child-care support so she can return to work, and if Clinton champions such a policy, she would likely support him.
In Bogalusa, La., Vicki Johnson has also reaped few benefits from a thriving economy. The foster care worker, who says improving education is her major concern, nevertheless thinks highly of Clinton's leadership.
"On a scale of 10, I think he's doing about a 6 or a 7," she says. "He's doing the best he can."
A bank teller from Woodridge, Va., Christine Johnson says she is not as well off economically as her parents were at her age. Like most Americans polled recently by Gallup, she also expressed skepticism about whether a budget surplus would ever materialize or, if it did, whether politicians would use it wisely.
Miss Johnson also complained that crime has gone up in her neighborhood over the past three years, especially robbery. Nevertheless, Johnson sees little connection between such problems and the president's character.
"That's his personal life. I don't think it affects what kind of president he is," she says.
On Wednesday, the president will make his first foray into mainstream America since the scandal broke with a visit to Champaign-Urbana, Ill. The Midwestern trip, planned to promote the themes of the State of the Union address, could now offer an early harbinger of the public temper on the president's future.
Thousands of people from miles around have snapped up tickets to see Clinton at the University of Illinois Assembly Hall, where 12,000 people are expected on Wednesday.
"I simply want to be there and see him," says Marianne Feinberg, who runs a small private middle school for girls. "The times are good," she says. "He's just made a few stupid mistakes."
Still, some local politicians in this heavily Republican region are using the occasion to recall a critical editorial that ran in the lone daily newspaper here shortly after Clinton's reelection in November 1996.
Under the headline "A Disgrace in the White House," editorial writer Rosemary Garhart of the GOP-inclined News-Gazette lambasted pro-Clinton voters who "will only have themselves to blame" for "ignoring the question of character" and "signaling their approval of unsavory business as usual at the White House."
* Jerry M. Landay in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., Sara Shipley in Covington, La., James Blair in Los Angeles, and staff writer Abraham T. McLaughlin in St. Louis contributed to this report.
Clinton By The Numbers
The American public remains strikingly ambivalent about President Clinton in the wake of allegations that he had an affair. Polls show the public split on the issue of impeachment.
* 55 percent surveyed in an ABC News/Washington Post poll over the weekend said Mr. Clinton should be impeached if he lied under oath. 55 percent also said asking Monica Lewinsky, the intern, to lie would be cause to force him out of office.
* 48 percent said in a CNN/USA Today poll they would favor an effort to impeach if they were convinced Clinton lied under oath. 48 percent opposed the idea.
* 51 percent surveyed in a Los Angeles Times poll say Clinton should be impeached if he lied under oath. 61 percent said asking Ms.Lewinsky to lie would be cause to remove him.
Still, many Americans remain sympathetic to Clinton's plight.
* 53 percent of respondents to a CBS News/New York Times poll blamed Clinton's political enemies for creating the current scandal, while only 38 percent blamed Clinton.
* 60 percent said in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that Clinton should remain in office even if the allegations are proved. Only 32 percent felt Clinton should be removed if the allegations are true.