Clinton bounces off the ropes

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PRESIDENT BILL Clinton was showing all the vigour of a boxer bouncing off the ropes yesterday, despite a looming deadline that will decide whether impeachment hearings are held.

At a White House Rose Garden event, he was unusually assertive compared with his more downcast attitude of the past few weeks. Instead of avoiding questions about the scandal, he pitched straight in. "The right thing to do is for us all to focus on what's best for the American people. And the right thing for me to do is what I'm doing," he said. "I'm working on leading our country, and I'm working on healing my family," he said.

"And if you look at what we announced today, what does it tell you?" The government had just announced that poverty had fallen and household incomes were rising, just the sort of news that has helped to keep his approval ratings over 60 per cent.

Behind the scenes, too, the White House is now vigorously counter-attacking. In particular, it is seeking to isolate Newt Gingrich, the Speaker of the House, and radical right-wingers around him from more moderate Republican figures who may hold back from impeaching the President. It has recruited senior figures from both parties - including Robert Dole, Mr Clinton's presidential adversary in 1996 - as intermediaries with Congress.

Henry Hyde, the chairman of the house judiciary committee, said yesterday that the committee would meet today to review the remaining 17 boxes of background evidence from the investigation by the independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr. After that, Mr Hyde hopes to be ready for a committee vote on impeachment hearings by 5 or 6 October. If the committee decides on impeachment hearings, then the full House of Representatives would vote on the issue on 9 October.

Both Democrats and Republicans now accept that impeachment hearings will be launched. The Republicans have a majority in the committee and the house, and they will not want to end the affair before the elections on 3 November. But it is not so clear what happens afterwards. The White House and congressional Democrats are trying to limit the hearings, and are pressing for some lesser punishment than impeachment. They also want to prevent the committee from expanding its hearings into non-Lewinsky affairs such as Whitewater.

To achieve that, they must convince moderate Republicans that they have an interest in saving the presidency, and in distancing themselves from Mr Gingrich. The White House has said throughout this week that it wanted to find a way to end the saga quickly, and has blamed Mr Gingrich for dragging out proceedings. Opinion polls repeatedly suggest that the main feeling of the American people is that the affair should end as soon as possible.

Mr Gingrich is not widely loved by the American people, and it makes sense to attack him. The headlines in yesterday's papers were all focused on Mr Gingrich and his stance. "Gingrich rejects making a deal with President", The Washington Post said.