A Duel to Win Public's Affection

Clinton and Starr see public as grandest jury, as Lewinsky inquiry veers toward Congress.

As the Monica Lewinsky controversy nears its fourth week, it is becoming increasingly clear that both President Clinton's defensive strategy and independent counsel Kenneth Starr's offense are being shaped to influence the grandest jury of all: the US public.

That's because it now appears unlikely that the he-said, she-said allegations of the case will be settled in court - at least, not while Mr. Clinton is in office. Instead, Mr. Starr will probably forward any evidence that the president made false statements about his relationship with the young intern, or encouraged others to lie, to the House of Representatives for possible impeachment proceedings.

And impeachment hearings would be a much more wrenching, wide-open contest than a narrow legal battle. Broad political and social questions would come into play, such as public perceptions about Starr's fairness and views on modern morality.

"In the end, the people are going to be the jury. Don't underestimate their common sense," says Jack Holmes, a political scientist at Hope College in Holland, Mich.

The need to shape public opinion explains at least one of the Clinton team's recent important moves - the attack on alleged leaks to the press from Starr's office.

On the face of it, Clinton lawyer David Kendall's highly public complaint about leaks last week was a rash foray. After all, leaks are what make Washington go round, and irritating such a powerful legal opponent as Starr might seem counterproductive.

But a number of analysts say one of Mr. Kendall's motives may have been to undermine general public confidence in Starr's investigation. The tactic could taint any impeachment referral the independent counsel ultimately makes to the House.

Overall, even White House aides are surprised at how well the president's strategy has been working, at least for now. With Clinton's public opinion level remaining in the stratosphere, aides see no need for the president to publicly go beyond his flat denials of the allegations - despite the fact that there is really no legal reason why he can't say more than he has.

The Clinton strategy "is working extremely well. So far he's been very good at taking care of his denials," says Robert Denton, a Virginia Tech specialist in presidential communications.

Getting Clinton to speak

But at least one important part of the Clinton approach can't last forever. Eventually, Starr will probably seek to hear Clinton's side of the story from Clinton himself. Once he does, public pressure for an accounting from the Oval Office may mount.

When the time comes, Clinton's accounting will have to provide a benign explanation for most other reports in the case, from presents he apparently gave the young White House intern to the number of times she visited the White House complex after she left her job there.

Starr, on the other hand, will try to pile up enough diverse evidence on the other side to throw the president's story into question. To do that, he needs more than Ms. Lewinsky's testimony. Hence the parade of witnesses he has called to appear before a grand jury in recent days, from Lewinsky's mother to White House stewards and Clinton's personal secretary.

But in the end it is a case that a jury of the president's peers won't hear first. Most constitutional scholars believe a sitting chief executive cannot be indicted before being removed from office. That means throwing the whole mess into the lap of the House for possible impeachment - a move Starr has reportedly said he would take if he feels he has proved his case.

The 'I' word

The gravity of the stakes involved in impeachment would produce proceedings with a much different dynamic than a courtroom drama. Public opinion - and its effect on elected representatives - would come powerfully into play.

Experts say that voters would have to be persuaded not only of the truth of the charges against the president, but also that the charges are serious enough to outweigh the tremendous disruption of removing him from office. "It's not strictly a legal question. In part it's a political question," says Boston University presidential historian Robert Dallek. "And it's a big reach to get to impeachment from where we are now."

Any such inquiry would begin with hearings in the House Judiciary Committee. Already the chairman of that panel, Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, is seeking a 20 percent increase in his staff in case he's handed impeachment workload.

But impeachment would end in the Senate, where a two-thirds vote would be needed to remove Clinton from office. That would require 12 Democratic senators to approve the ouster of a chief executive from their own party.

Clinton's current approval ratings, which range from 60 to 80 percent, would seem to make that improbable. But pollsters say those numbers could change.

Mark Penn, one of the president's own pollsters, agreed this week that there are two distinct majorities in the country: those who approve of Clinton in general, and those who think the allegations against him are true. But that does not mean the country doesn't care about what the president may or may not have done. These two majorities don't overlap that much, said Mr. Penn - meaning that Clinton's approval rating could quickly dive if new evidence surfaces.

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