'Honey, it's Bill on the answering machine ... again'

Clinton steps up his campaigning for congressional Democrats and for Gore, but often from long distance.

Like a Dalmation in a firehouse, President Clinton can't be kept home during election time.

Up to now, he's been an offstage presence in the campaign - largely confined to the sidelines by the Gore camp, with the bulk of his contribution consisting of fundraisers.

But in the coming days, the president will take on a much more visible role, staging a high-profile legislative showdown this week with Congress; giving select media interviews; recording phone messages and radio spots; and travelling the country to rouse voters - including a trip to the must-win state of California. To many observers, Mr. Clinton's heightened involvement comes none too soon, given his skills as a campaigner.

"The emerging political story of the last two weeks of the campaign is the reemergence of Bill Clinton," says Marshall Wittmann, political analyst at the Hudson Institute here.

Tension behind the scenes

Yet to the detriment of the Democrats, part of that political story is the reported ongoing tension between the president and vice president. The Gore campaign has decided that there will be no joint appearances between now and election day, eliminating the possibility that Al Gore will be upstaged by his more charismatic boss. The media, meanwhile, describe a frustrated president reduced to calling Mr. Gore's campaign manager because the vice president won't take his calls.

The selective use of the president by the Gore campaign strikes longtime political observer Stephen Hess as "very strange." Granted, the president can be a reminder of scandal and immorality in the White House, but he's also the most gifted campaigner the Democrats have, he says. Who better to enthuse the base than Clinton? "Increasingly, I find that Gore has a tin ear politically," says Mr. Hess, at the Brookings Institution here.

Asked recently what kind of advice the president is giving the vice president, White House spokesman Jake Siewert indicated it's often done indirectly. "I would never share the advice the president gives to the vice president - even though he does it at every fundraiser," he chuckled.

Indeed, up until now, Clinton has been somewhat of a stealth campaigner, using inside-the-fold venues to make vigorous and spirited appeals for his party. Last week, when he went up to the Hill to speak to the Democratic caucus, he was a surrogate Gore, answering George W. Bush issue-for-issue.

Referring to Mr. Bush's last debate performance, the president said incredulously: "I almost gagged when I heard that answer on the patients' bill of rights in Texas. Could you believe it? Here's a guy who takes credit for a bill he vetoed." (Republicans counter that Clinton takes credit for welfare reform, yet vetoed an original version of the bill). "Then there was this education recession argument," he continued. "What are the facts? The dropout rate's down, the high school graduation rate's up, the college-going rate's at an all-time high."

Republicans are "clouding" the issues, he said, and the Democrats have to bring clarity.

Budget showdown

This week, the president will have the opportunity to do that not just in front of his Democratic friends, but before the nation.

After having granted three week-long continuing resolutions to allow Congress to finish its budget work, even though the new fiscal year began Oct. 1, it's no more Mr. Nice Guy, the White House says. Because the Republican leadership has allowed its members to use much of this time for campaigning instead of getting its work in Washington done, the president announced that, after Wednesday, he's switching to one-day continuing resolutions.

With lawmakers not returning to work until Tuesday, it's unlikely they will get the remaining four bills out the door by mid-week. That will give Clinton a reason to portray them - yet again - as a do-nothing Congress.

"The Republicans have to know that if this [session] drags on past Wednesday, we'll have the single best speaker in politics out here two weeks before the election spelling out the differences between the parties," says Rep. Edward J. Markey (D) of Massachusetts.

But will anybody be listening? The Mideast crisis, the elections, and the World Series, may drown him out. Which is why, observers like Hess say, he's got to get out on the campaign trail.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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