Advocacy Groups Begin TV Battle On Clinton Future

National ads begin airing this week in stepped-up effort to sway public opinion.

Before there was a Kenneth Starr on the impeachment trail, there was Scott Lauf.

Mr. Lauf and a handful of volunteers with the Clinton Investigative Committee have been appealing for years to the moral outrage of the electorate, one voter at a time, through a Web site and protests at the White House.

While foot soldiers like Lauf have been toiling on the front lines of the public-relations war in the Lewinsky scandal for months, signs are growing that the big guns are preparing to enter the battle.

In the wake of yesterday's historic House vote to launch a formal impeachment inquiry against President Clinton, energized advocacy groups on both sides of the political spectrum are quietly gearing up for a public-relations blitz in their efforts to steer public opinion.

Unleashing their purse strings and their most polished rhetoric, special-interest groups are preparing to debate the question of whether Mr. Clinton should be impeached with all the force of a late-fall hurricane.

Lauf and his fellow protesters are excited to see the debate heat up.

"It's been a pretty phenomenal few weeks," he says. "Before the president's testimony [Aug. 17], we were averaging 2,500 hits a day [on the Web site]; now, it's like 50,000, if not more, a day."

Until now, campaign-style efforts to shape public opinion have been sluggish.

Candidates have shied away from focusing specifically on Clinton's personal problems.

And advocacy groups have been loath to divert their resources from congressional races in the weeks before the November elections.

Not anymore. A trickle of national advocacy ads began airing this week in markets across the country in a bid to mobilize Democratic voters.

They are likely to be joined by a flood of others that will remain on the airwaves until well after the new year.

TV as political tool

As a toll-free "move on" hot line flashes across the TV, the camera focuses on a motherly figure holding her grandchild in her arms.

"I feel like you," says Carole Shields, president of the liberal group The American Way in an ad that premired this week. The ad suggests that those with strong family values are ready to forgive Clinton and go forward. "Nov. 3 is election day, it's time to move on," Ms. Shields says.

Other liberal interest groups, including the AFL-CIO, have for now put off media campaigns on the president's behalf. But that could change.

"You may see Democrats out there energized, saying, 'We have to get involved' " once the reality of the proceedings sets in, says Del Ali, senior vice president of Mason-Dixon Political Media Research in Columbia, Md.

"The full-court press won't come until hearings begin in the House," predicts long-time Democratic adviser Ted Van Dyk at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, Calif.

Conservative organizations are also considering when and how to most effectively enter the fray.

A spokesman for the Christian Coalition says a national media campaign based on the theme of moral leadership could be launched before next month's election.

American Renewal, the conservative group led by Gary Bauer, has already produced an ad urging Clinton to step down. It is airing in markets across the country.

As constitutional framer Alexander Hamilton noted, the impeachment process is political as well as legal. And in the undefined realm of "high crimes and misdemeanors," public opinion will help shape how Congress applies the term to Clinton.

Individuals step into fray

Until recently, attempts to rudder opinion have been made by a grab bag of individuals.

Last week former presidential candidate Ross Perot announced a national petition drive to unseat Clinton.

James Carville, the Democrat's loose cannon, has forcefully weighed in, attacking both the Republican leadership and the impeachment proceedings.

And a gaggle of movie stars and entertainers led by Barbra Streisand signed a letter last month urging the country to shift its focus from the tawdry details of the sex scandal to substantive matters of state.

Lauf says he sees a growing involvement among average citizens. Many of the calls he fields today come from people asking how to organize protests when the president visits their cities. He is working with organizers in Florida and California who plan to picket upcoming fund-raising events attended by Clinton.

While polls may reveal public fatigue with the issue, the constitutional system itself is on track, scholars say.

"Citizens being concerned about and arguing these issues, and what our president should be doing, is a positive thing," says James Pfiffner, a professor of government at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

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