AFTER stumbling early on, the Clinton White House has gotten its public-relations act together.
The opening scene of President Clinton's health-care reform push has gone according to script, with a steady flow of characters taking the stage and allowing nary a pause for hecklers to drown out the dialogue.
Mr. Clinton's passionate speech before Congress last week won praise from the public. His televised ``Nightline'' town meeting the following evening in Tampa, Fla., put Clinton in a milieu that worked well for him during the presidential campaign.
A supporting cast of Cabinet officials, senior advisers, and medical celebrities such as former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton have fanned out across the country for visits with average people and colorful photo-ops for both local and national news media. Back inside the Beltway, no Washingtonian will forget the sight of dozens of pesky talk-show hosts broadcasting live from the White House lawn.
And in the climax of Act I, replete with historic significance, Hillary Rodham Clinton wowed members of Congress from both parties with her testimony this week on reform. She was only the third presidential wife to testify before Congress, and the first to formulate a central initiative of her husband's administration.
``They've done a dynamite job,'' says Mark Melman, a Democratic consultant. ``There's a very strong, pro-active administration offensive to explain the plan to the American people.... The most important thing is to catch public opinion early, and make sure it's positive.''
Public enthusiasm was high last February after Clinton announced his budget plan, but the administration allowed it to dissipate by letting criticism build up. Now, Mr. Melman says, ``They're not letting little falsehoods go unanswered.''
For example, last Sunday the former head of the National Institutes of Health, Bernadine Healy, said on television that routine mammograms were not covered by the Clinton plan. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D) of West Virginia, a guest on the same program, refuted her statement, and the next day, Mrs. Clinton repeated before Congress that mammograms would be covered.
The Clinton team did suffer a setback Wednesday when the powerful American Medical Association announced that that it will lobby against key parts of the health plan.
But, on the whole, the White House is ``doing a fine job of selling the concept of health reform. The public is buying that,'' says Chip Kahn, a lobbyist for the Health Insurance Association of America, no friend of the Clinton administration.
But, Mr. Kahn points out, the details of the plan remain fuzzy -
the administration, after all, has yet to unveil its legislation -
and there is widespread skepticism over the plan's financing.
A Democratic analyst agrees that once the details emerge, it will give the opposition more to attack. He says people came away from Clinton's speech with some nagging questions: How will the plan be paid for? Will it create a huge new bureaucracy? And will it really work?
For the administration, the question is whether it can keep up its selling job over the many months it will take for legislation to make its way through Congress. The White House ``war room'' will be in it for the long haul (and long work days), treating the effort to pass health reform like a political campaign.
But most of the administration heavies have other jobs to do besides campaigning on health, so it will be incumbent on the Clinton team to show that it has learned to focus on more than one issue at the same time.
The administration has armies of supporters behind it, revving up their own campaigns. The liberal group Families USA is organizing 1,000 house parties around the country on Oct. 21 to view a film, ``People Just Like You,'' which brings the need for reform to a personal level. ``We will ask people to write letters and postcards to their members of Congress, and hopefully they'll set up meetings with them,'' says Ron Pollack, head of Families USA.