A Backlash Solidifies Democrats

With Clinton's approval rating higher than ever, party officials around the country see contributions flowing.

Even hard-core Democrats are surprised by the way the country has rallied around President Clinton since the allegations of sex and a coverup hit the White House just 13 days ago.

His approval ratings are soaring (for now), party activists are galvanized, and Democratic fund-raisers report contributions continue to stream into the party coffers - in some states in increasingly large amounts.

What happened to all the pundits' talk about "impeachment" and "resignation" after the frenzy at the first scent of scandal?

"There's a sense the media, the independent counsel's office, and the opposition party are trying to negate the mandate of the American people," says the University of Virginia's Larry Sabato, the author of "Feeding Frenzy." "I saw the same thing in '72 and '73 [around the Watergate revelations.]"

Interviews with more than a dozen party leaders around the country reveal a nation with a deep sense of fairness. But reaction to the scandal also illustrates some of the strains, frustrations, and hopes facing different regions of the country.

Out in the high-tech West, it has tapped into anxieties about the erosion of the right to privacy, and Democratic frustrations with the rise of the religious right. In the cautious Midwest and the more conservative South, there is a hesitancy to jump to conclusions coupled with a dismay at the attacks on the office of the presidency.

And in the old industrial Northeast, there's a rallying around a president whose policies, they believe, have helped bolster the region's sagging economies and boosted some social programs, such as day care and education.

But overall, there is also a sense of exhaustion with the constant "cynical" attacks on a president who's perceived to be doing a good job. While much of the sentiment is predictable Democratic boosterism, the fervency of the support represents a shift from just a week ago, when some local party members were distancing themselves from the president.

"In view of how well Clinton and Gore have governed our country, it overrides all the negatives," says Ron McCloud, Kentucky's Democratic Party chairman. "No one condones any wrongdoing, but all we see is a lot of allegations. Most people think it's much ado about nothing."

Mr. McCloud says most of the Democrats he's heard from are more "motivated, fired up, and supportive of the president than ever before." He gives much of the credit to Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel who's spent an estimated $30 million investigating the president. With that kind of money, he says, you could find something embarrassing about anyone.

"Public service is hard enough," he adds. "People know if they stub their toe the least little bit it's front page news. But most people I know who are in it, in both parties, really want to make a difference."

OUT in Seattle, the home of Microsoft, there's general alarm not so much about what the president may have done, according to state party chairman Paul Berendt, but the way special prosecutor and press have behaved. That, in turn, has ignited a renewed recognition of the value and importance of privacy.

"We have all this technology, computers that can print out your life story, things about you that you've long forgotten," says Mr. Berendt. "People don't want the government poking its nose in their business."

The state party's major telethon was going on the week the story broke. Contributions were up 15 percent over last year. Reservations for this year's annual Democratic Party dinner, slated for later this month, are also up. "Democrats feel under siege, and when you feel under siege, you unite and quit squabbling and prepare for battle," says Berendt.

In Wyoming, state party chairwoman Matilda Hansen says her party has felt under siege from the religious right for the at least the last 15 years. What's happening in Washington is only serving to confirm her worst feelings about the degeneration of political discourse in the country.

"I'm called a liar, told that I don't do my homework, that I'm spending too much time with Saddam Hussein, that I was pushed out of a space ship over Roswell, N.M.," says Ms. Hansen. "I don't think there's any allegation that Ken Starr or anyone else from their shop can make that would make me question Mr. Clinton. I know what they're doing to us. I've seen their agenda. This is nasty stuff."

In Texas and Georgia, one concern is about fairness and the impact on the country's governmental institutions. "The permanent investigation by Starr seems to be designed to chip away confidence in the institution of the presidency," says Bill White, Texas's Democratic Party chairman. "That's not very good for people in either political party."

In New York, Democratic party head Judith Hope agrees and says her constituents feel the "peeping Tom-style" of the independent counsel is "un-American." Fund-raising is up and so is confidence in the president's leadership ability.

In northern New England, there appears to be a bit more caution, and a "wait and see" attitude about the allegations. "But I don't feel any uncertainty about Clinton's ability to guide the country in terms of what's coming next, particularly with what we may be about to do in Iraq," says Bill Babcock, executive director of Maine's Democratic Party.

Still, not all is well with the Democrats. They, like Republicans, are having trouble recruiting top-tier candidates for some key congressional races. What's uncertain is whether the president's current travails will help or hurt in finding candidates.

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