ALTHOUGH Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D) of Illinois has won the clear support of President Clinton, there are doubts that even a White House endorsement can help him clinch a tough primary ballot.
Representative Rostenkowski, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has been under investigation since 1992 because of accusations that he has misused taxpayer money. He denies wrongdoing while declining to discuss the accusations.
The president usually avoids taking sides in Democratic primaries, but he did so in Chicago on Feb. 28, apparently as part of an unspoken deal: Aid the politically distressed congressman in his home district and thereby ensure the powerful dealmaker's support back in Washington for health care, welfare reform, and other key legislation.
By applauding Rostenkowski, Mr. Clinton was tacitly urging voters not to allow accusations of corruption to overshadow the congressman's undeniable legislative skill and leverage.
``Had it not been for his leadership last year, we would not have done the things that we've done that have got the economy on the right course,'' Clinton said at Wright Junior College.
Rostenkowski will need more than Clinton's support to secure the district's Democratic candidacy for Congress in the March 15 primary. If the 18-term lawmaker is to break from a pack of four other candidates, he must win over a large number of undecided voters.
Since Clinton took office his record at helping party colleagues to victory has been checkered at best. Five Democrats he has supported have gone down to defeat against Republicans. Most conspicuously, former New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio last November was narrowly upset by Christie Whitman, despite aggressive campaigning by Clinton.
Still, the message of Clinton on Feb. 28 was in perfect tune with the Rostenkowski campaign. In the past several weeks, Rostenkowski has continually reminded voters of the breadth and depth of his political influence and ability to bring home federal dollars.
``And if you want me to get things done, you have to say to the members of Congress, `Act!' One person you don't have to say it to is Dan Rostenkowski. It's in his bones, and he will do it too,'' Clinton said.
The catch phrase for the Rostenkowski campaign, as broadcast on the radio, reminds voters that if they toss out the congressman they could lose millions in federal largess. ``Dan Rostenkowski: Leadership we can't afford to lose,'' the announcer says.