* Early yesterday morning on the White House lawn - dawn not even a full flicker yet - long rows of folding tables were lit up like a stadium for a night game.

Already, a dozen radio talk-show hosts were set up on the grass doing morning drive-time shows for areas from Beaver Falls, Penn., to Lake Worth, Fla. Dozens more would join them during the day from stations around the country.

Already, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala was doing interviews across the driveway, just a few short hours after her late-night session on ``Larry King Live.''

On the morning after President Clinton's most important speech so far, the White House was showing a vigorous consciousness of lessons learned in the last political war.

In battling for the budget, Mr. Clinton addressed Congress on Feb. 17, carried the message out on the road for the next several days, then moved on to other subjects. The White House never caught up with public opinion, which was convinced that a tax increase was being foisted on the middle class.

Some Democrats were especially frustrated over the influence of the talk shows on public opinion. Conservative call-in czar and Clinton nemesis Rush Limbaugh did not appear on the White House lawn. But the roughly 60 hosts who did found it especially easy to capture White House officials for on-the-air interviews.

Earlier in the week, the talk-show hosts received their own meeting with Hillary Rodham Clinton to brief them on the health-care plan.

The whole effort at public diplomacy is much more strategic and energetic this time than for the economic plan. It will include town meetings around the country in coming weeks.

Leading the meetings will be the popular surgeon general of the Reagan administration, C. Everett Koop. With his Lincoln beard and no-nonsense reputation, Dr. Koop will be a valuable ambassador for the plan.

Koop was strategically seated next to Mrs. Clinton during the speech Wednesday night in a move reminiscent of Clinton's economic speech before Congress last February, when Mrs. Clinton was joined by Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan.

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