Clinton accused: Allies come out fighting but many Democrats prefer to hedge their bets

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The Independent Online
The President has drafted in key supporters to back him in his attempt to prove his innocence. But others close to the White House are not so sure.

President Bill Clinton's profession of his innocence yesterday, made in the presence of his wife and his Vice-President, was clearly designed to project an image of unity and solidarity in the White House. In recent days, however, the united front from which Mr Clinton has so long benefited - at least where personal accusations are concerned - has started to crack in a way that has ominous implications for his presidency.

On Sunday, the White House mustered all its forces to issue out-and-out denials of both the main allegations against the President: that he had an affair with a White House trainee and that he put pressure on her (or had pressure put on her) to deny the relationship. First off the blocks was Ann Lewis, director of communications at the White House, a straight- talking woman of a certain age who brooked no dissent in protesting his innocence.

She was followed by James Carville, Mr Clinton's fast-talking and combative campaign manager in the last election, who was equally adamant. Known to have "rottweiler" tendencies, Mr Carville predicted a "war" between the Clinton camp and his accusers and said of the latest sex allegations: "He has denied it to staff, has denied it to the news media, has denied it to the American people, and denied it to his Cabinet and denied it to his friends." Questioned, however, on whether he had personally heard the denial from the President's lips, he hedged.

Waiting in the wings are Mickey Kantor, Mr Clinton's former Commerce Secretary, and Harold Ickes, former deputy chief of staff at the White House, both of whom agreed at the weekend to return to work for the President - the former full-time in his capacity as lawyer, the other part-time and unpaid. Both are considered wholehearted allies of Mr Clinton, and would surely not have agreed to work for him at this juncture if they were not. What they have in common is their political sense, speed of reaction and intellectual capacity - all qualities desperately needed to limit the considerable political damage already suffered by Mr Clinton.

Many former associates of the President, however, while offering personal support, have appeared hesitant about insisting on his innocence. Among erstwhile loyalists speaking publicly in recent days, two former spokesmen - George Stephanopoulos and Dee-Dee Myers - expressed the "hope" that he was speaking the truth. The hint of doubt from Mr Stephanopoulos, now a talkshow host and media star, was particularly striking because he has consistently advised Mr Clinton to fight the sexual harassment charges by Paula Jones through the courts if necessary, maintaining that he could, and would, win.

A former chief of staff at the Clinton White House, Leon Panetta, became a conspicuous deserter from the Clinton camp when he broached the thought in a California newspaper that the Democratic Party and the country might be better served if Mr Clinton handed over to Vice-President Al Gore.

While the continuing loyalty of these former aides may be questioned, no one can doubt their familiarity with the workings of the Clinton White House or with Mr Clinton, and they are conspicuously not ruling out the charges against him. Democratic Congressmen - many of whom face re-election later this year - have also offered less than full support to Mr Clinton, choosing to wait and see or remaining silent rather than rally around the President.

If Democrat politicians have seemed equivocal, so - more surprisingly perhaps - have Republicans, few of whom have come out openly to exploit Mr Clinton's difficulties. One reason may be the possibility that Mr Clinton could yet be vindicated, making his accusers look both mean and ridiculous. Another is that Republicans, who have a majority in Congress, have reached a modus vivendi with Mr Clinton that could end in the event of his departure.

The main reason, though, is probably that the opposition has no need to risk anything. Mr Clinton is in quite enough difficulty already.