Clinton Gets Boost From Whirlwind Of Issues at Home

THE Henry Foster nomination. Medicare's solvency crisis. Domestic terrorism. Whitewater.

As President Clinton wings his way toward a sticky summit meeting in Moscow, he can take stock of the swirl of home-grown issues he will leave behind for a few days.

For the most part, the news for the president -- and a reelection bid that is taking shape -- has been good of late. In his uphill battle to win confirmation for Dr. Foster as surgeon general, Clinton can at least take solace in Republican discomfort over the abortion issue. On Medicare, he is watching Republicans struggle with the clashing demands of a health-care program facing bankruptcy and a promise to balance the federal budget.

In the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, Clinton's proposals to enhance federal law-enforcement capabilities are being scrutinized on Capitol Hill. In some corners, Clinton faces criticism for being too tough, perhaps not a bad position for a Democrat to be in.

Even from electoral-vote rich California, the news isn't bad: Gov. Pete Wilson (R), set to announce his own presidential campaign, apparently failed to pay social security taxes for an immigrant housekeeper. Though the flap won't likely sideline his candidacy, it could undermine his moral authority on immigration -- and helps keep California in play in November 1996.

But as presidential politics lurks behind every policy debate and development, the one issue that could blow Clinton's reelection chances out of the water has also reasserted itself: Whitewater.

Top presidential aide Bruce Lindsey, it has been revealed, is a target in the investigation over Clinton's election finances and real estate dealings.

Outside the beltway, Mr. Lindsey is not well-known. But his predicament, which could lead to an indictment, represents a harbinger of possible troubles for the president and his wife, says Larry Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. ''Lindsey's situation is a reminder of Christmas future,'' Professor Sabato says.

Still, a Lindsey indictment in and of itself does not necessarily deal Clinton a fatal blow.

''Remember, Iran-contra [indicments] went pretty high, too'' and did not kill the Republicans' presidential chances in the 1980s, says Alan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University here in Washington.

The Lindsey situation aside, Clinton's aides are allowing themselves a few moments of self-congratulation over the president's recent successes. Henry Foster won praise even from Republicans in his confirmation hearings last week. The affable obstetrician-gynecologist, under fire for initially misstating his abortion record, has put Republicans -- especially Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas -- in a no-win situation.

If Senator Dole refuses a vote in the full Senate, he will win points with anti-abortion conservatives, but will open himself up to charges of unfairness and invite Democratic retaliation. Some Republican senators -- including Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas, who chaired Foster's hearings, presidential candidate Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and conservative John McCain of Arizona -- say Foster deserves his full-Senate vote.

If Dole relents and allows a vote, Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas, another contender for the Republican nomination, has threatened a filibuster. This would allow him to score points with Christian conservatives, an activist constituency that has leaned on him lately to be more vocal about ''family values.''

IF Clinton heads into presidential-primary season without any major opposition from within his own party, he will be the first Democratic president since 1964 afforded such a luxury. A presidential run by the Rev. Jesse Jackson could be damaging in its potential to splinter off a part of Clinton's political base, but so far Mr. Jackson's intentions remain unclear.

A more serious factor in the general election is the potential candidacy of another African-American, Gen. Colin Powell. Professor Lichtman, known for a formula that successfully predicts presidential winners, says a Powell candidacy would hurt Clinton.

''A third-party candidacy is bad for the incumbent,'' Lichtman says. ''It shows the weakness of the party in power.''

But Professor Sabato disagrees. ''In a three-way race, Clinton probably wins. Surveys show that for every Democratic vote Powell takes away [from Clinton], he takes three from the Republicans.... He would take an enormous number of suburban voters.''

The question is whether Powell will jump in. Sabato says the tactically conservative Powell is waiting to see if there's a way he could win before he makes the leap.

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