Clinton Tries Long March Back

He takes his presidential persona on the road, but grand jury keeps hearing witnesses in probe of his credibility.

For President Clinton, it's now a waiting game.

He has delivered a polished State of the Union address, members of both parties agree, diverting national attention for an evening away from talk of scandal to talk of issues. His wife has come out in forceful defense, rallying his supporters, particularly the women, who needed to hear from the key woman in Clinton's life.

And he has taken his message of prosperity and opportunity into the American heartland, with a post-State of the Union foray into Illinois and Wisconsin, like a campaign swing of old.

But the answer to "Where does Clinton go from here?" resides, in many ways, out of his hands - not only with the lawyers and special prosecutor handling the allegations of an affair with a White House intern and possible obstruction of justice, but with the American people.

Clinton's poll numbers on his job performance as president have held remarkably strong, and the president is buoyed by that knowledge, White House sources say.

But "if serious questions about his character come to overshadow confidence in his performance, his presidency is in serious trouble," says political analyst William Schneider. "I'm not talking about him leaving office, but more about his ability to wield any political clout. His character rating is sinking by the day."

For now, Clinton needs to keep looking confident and presidential, as he did with Congress on Tuesday evening, says Sam Popkin, a political scientist at the University of San Diego and sometime Democratic adviser. With the speech, "he pulled off the compartmentalization necessary to keep people looking the other way," says Mr. Popkin. In coming days, he should "do more of the same."

Still, party activists on both sides of the aisle say the president's woes have already damaged the Democratic Party's prospects for state and congressional elections this fall.

Republican consultant Ladonna Lee predicts that the GOP could add about 10 seats to its congressional majority - a crucial boost to the party's slim margin - whereas before she thought the gains would be in the three-to six-seat range.

"The midterm election opportunities are very much in the Republican favor," says Ms. Lee, president of the Eddie Mahe consulting company. "From the Democrats' perspective, President Clinton was doing a great deal of fund-raising for the party and different committees, and I just can't imagine that that is going to continue."

Political observers outside the Beltway agree. Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli, a former state Democratic chairman, reports "there's terrible anxiety among Democrats in Colorado." Mr. Ciruli sees the specter of 1974, when a Watergate-damaged GOP was trounced in fall elections - a vote that, in Colorado, catapulted Democrats Richard Lamm, Gary Hart, and Timothy Wirth into office. Now, with a Senate seat and the governorship up for grabs, the Democrats are at a disadvantage.

Nationwide, the Democratic Party was already having a hard time recruiting a strong slate of candidates for state and federal office, and now that challenge seems only more daunting.

For Republicans already in Congress, Tuesday evening's speech presented an opportunity to take the high ground and appear gracious in the face of charges about Clinton's personal life that, for some voters, may serve to demean the image of all politicians.

Ironically, Republicans were more polite than they were during the State of the Union a couple of years ago, when some members booed and hooted during the speech. This year, GOP leaders exhorted the party regulars to be on their best behavior - and they were. A few members displayed mild forms of protest, such as Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) of California, who engaged in mock applause.

"I wanted to be courteous to the president but not necessarily supportive at the same time," Congressman Rohrabacher said later.

Rep. John Kasich (R) of Ohio, chairman of the House Budget Committee, called the State of the Union "a special night," a time for coming together, which is "what gives us a strong nation." Mr. Kasich gives Clinton high marks on delivery - "He's like Sinatra. He always belts out a good one" - but had problems with content.

"Bill Clinton made a good case tonight for eliminating state and local governments and school districts. Let's run it all out of Washington," Kasich said, with some irony. "What am I going to say when I go back to my township supervisors."

Democrats, who have been cautious in their support of the president since the allegations exploded last week, welcomed the opportunity to comment on policy, not problems.

"[Clinton] performed well in a difficult time," says Rep. Vic Fazio (D) of California, chairman of the House Democratic caucus. "It shows that in Washington we're still focused on Main Street America's problems. The president was focused, and I thought he was effective."

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey chided Republicans for sitting still when the president raised important issues in his speech. "They ought to be ashamed of themselves. I hope the American people noticed."

* Staff writers Lawrence J. Goodrich and Abraham McLaughlin contributed to this report.

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