Clinton's coattails less ragged than expected

President's approval ratings, and Gore's success, suggest taint of scandal is fading.

It's become almost a clich in the American political lexicon: Clinton fatigue. Fed up with the president's slippery behavior and moral ambiguity, many American voters are tired of the Clinton era and want a leader who isn't like "Slick Willy."

It's a plausible theory - but perhaps not totally accurate. In fact, according to polls, after seven scandal-marred years, the president is defying history with his approval ratings - outpolling even GOP icon Ronald Reagan.

True, most people who rate Mr. Clinton high have long separated his achievements from his personal conduct. But his moral lapses may not turn out to be a drag at the ballot box, after all.

"Clinton fatigue is still out there, but every month past [the] Lewinsky [scandal] it's a little less," says Charles Cook, an independent political analyst.

Even some Republicans acknowledge that the residue of the Lewinsky affair, while tainting, will not necessarily doom Al Gore or Hillary Rodham Clinton. Consider the following trends in public opinion:

*The president himself is scoring historic job-approval ratings. Every modern president, going back to Harry Truman, has seen his ratings drop in his final years in office - even the popular Ronald Reagan.

But Bill Clinton's ratings are higher than when he was reelected in 1996. After that election, he hovered in the mid-50s. Now, a recent ABC/Washington Post poll shows 58 percent of Americans approve of the job he's doing, and a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll puts it at a remarkable 66 percent.

*Al Gore, meanwhile, has been steaming past the anti-establishment Democrat, Bill Bradley. As Americans cast their primary votes at press time in the Super Tuesday states, polls showed Gore with double-digit leads over Mr. Bradley, and the Bradley camp was said to be preparing an exit if the Gore sweep in fact played out.

All this has been happening as Mr. Gore connects himself more boldly with the Clinton administration. Most obvious, he has been talking up the Clinton-Gore record, but more subtly, he's also been imitating the relaxed Clinton look of cowboy boots and polo sweater.

The result so far seems positive. In polls comparing the various match-ups in the general election, Gore has closed in on Republican George W. Bush. Indeed, in California, polls show Gore ahead of Mr. Bush by 5 to 10 points.

In the New York Senate race, Hillary Rodham Clinton has also come up on her Republican opponent, Rudolph Giuliani. Two recent polls have put the race at a statistical tie.

*While political analysts agree that voter disgust with the president means character counts more in this election than in others, many say Americans still rank issues above personal traits when they weigh what's important in a presidential candidate.

In California, one of the Super Tuesday states, voters rate issues over character by about 3 to 2, says Mark DiCamillo of the Field Institute, the premier Golden State polling firm. Mr. DiCamillo described Clinton's high-profile fund-raising in California last weekend as a good thing for Gore, and says Gore's White House ties are "a net plus, as long as you can keep it on issues."

Nationwide, nearly 60 percent of Americans think a president's position on issues is the most important factor in their choice; only 18 percent say it's character, according to the ABC/Post poll.

"People are really smart, you know, and it's pretty hard to convince them that they should hold anyone responsible for someone else's mistake, particularly a personal mistake," the president said at a press conference last month. It's a self-serving remark, to be sure, but also one from the political realm's most experienced Comeback Kid.

Chris Ingram, a Republican pollster, agrees that so-called Clinton fatigue is less of a factor than it was several months ago. But it's still "alive and well," he says. Witness the unexpected and strong support for GOP candidate John McCain, who has been campaigning on themes of reform and honor.

Ninety percent of the McCain phenomenon is about the GOP maverick portraying himself as the antithesis of Clinton, agrees New York Republican consultant Jay Severin. But that is not to say a Clintonite can't be elected, he adds. "I don't think it's so toxic that anyone who has the Clinton connection is necessarily killed by it."

Once the primaries are over and the two parties are battling each other, expect the GOP to focus much more heavily on Clinton fatigue, analysts say.

And other factors could revive it as well. The independent counsel investigating the Clintons hasn't closed up shop yet. And Gore can't possibly be helped by last week's conviction of Maria Hsia for illegal fund-raising for the Democrats in 1996. Ms. Hsia was a longtime fund-raiser for Gore.

Still, history indicates that in times of peace and prosperity the odds favor the incumbent party, says Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University here and author of "Keys to the White House."

Despite the Iran-contra scandal, Ronald Reagan's vice president, George Bush, still was able to capture the White House in 1988. While some attribute it to the weak opponent he had in Michael Dukakis, Mr. Lichtman says the main factors were prosperity and tranquility at home and the sunset on the cold war - conditions not unlike those today.

While Clinton fatigue may exist, says Lichtman, it's "overwhelmed" by today's good times. "You don't usually vote out incumbent parties under these circumstances."

As to the McCain phenomenon, the senator is tapping a sentiment that predates Clinton by decades, says Lichtman.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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