Clinton enjoys his golf as enemies bicker

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WITH A KISS for Hillary and a New Year's Resolution, Bill Clinton welcomed the arrival of 1999 on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. He was mingling with other movers and shakers who attended the Renaissance weekend, a cross between Butlins and the Senior Common Room at All Soul's which is masterminded by Philip Lader, a close Clinton friend and now ambassador to the Court of St James.

The resolution was not what one might think, given everything that has happened to the president in the past year. It was more of an admonition, really, a call to Washington to forswear "the politics of personal destruction". Yet Mr Clinton has, in some respects, done very nicely out of all the mud-slinging of 1998. For the precision-guided munitions hurled his way by his political opponents have demonstrated an unerring ability to return swiftly to the sender, doing more collateral damage to the Republican Party than to the President.

The latest victim is Trent Lott, the Senate majority leader. It is the Senate's task to see through the impeachment of Mr Clinton, now that the House of Representatives has voted two charges against him - perjury and obstruction of justice. Mr Lott is trying to find a way to circumvent a trial, move swiftly to a vote of censure and dispense with the issue before any more damage is done. He wants the Senate to vote on whether to hold a trial, reckoning that a two-thirds majority will want to forgo that pleasure. There would be no witnesses; no court-room drama.

Mr Lott is no fool, and he has watched the House Republicans as they pressed on with impeachment, ignoring the evidence of public distaste. First, the party lost seats, rather than gained them, in the Congressional elections in November. Then Newt Gingrich, Mr Lott's opposite number in the House, resigned after the party turned on him. Then Bob Livingston, Mr Gingrich's successor, resigned after admitting marital indiscretions of his own, and the party's conservative wing rounded on him.

The Republican right has made Mr Lott the next target. It says he is trying to circumvent the constitutional process, and with Congress due to return on Wednesday, there is still no consensus on how to proceed. The split between the two wings of the party which has damaged it all year, between the morally charged right and the more pragmatic centre, is becoming increasingly obvious, and increasingly deadly.

Ironically, Mr Lott is a conservative, as true blue as anyone on Capitol Hill, and he comes from the same southern background as most of the party's right. But in this case he clearly sees his interest - and that of the rest of the Senate Republicans - as avoiding any more time spent on impeachment when it looks very unlikely to pass in any any case.

While Mr Lott was struggling with his unruly troops and Mr Clinton was whooping it up on the golf course in South Carolina, Al Gore, a man with no reputation as a party animal, was doing something much more serious: he was filing his papers as a candidate for the presidential election in 2000. As the most likely Democratic standard-bearer, he must be very cheered by what he sees. It is clear that the schism in the Congressional party will affect the chances of the Republican candidates.

First out of the traps was John McCain, a highly regarded, conservative but fiercely independent Senator from Arizona. Mr McCain is, above all, a very honest man, telling the Arizona Republic newspaper when asked whether he would stand that "there's a lot of other things I'd rather do - like bang my head up against the wall". He will get long odds.

John Ashcroft, the dour Senator from Harry Truman's state of Missouri, will get shorter odds, because he has backing from the Christian Coalition, from veteran televangelist Pat Robertson, and from James Dobson, the new eminence grise of the religious right. Outside the Christian right he is virtually unknown; within it, he is well-respected. Consequently, he will want to push the campaign on to solidly conservative terrain, and so will Republican Party activists. He is expected to put himself forward on Tuesday and is a credible candidate, for Vice-President if not President.

At least two other candidates will, like Mr Ashcroft, be pushing the Republican campaign to the right: Steve Forbes, the billionaire publisher, and Dan Quayle, former vice-president. Mr Forbes spent $37m of his own money in 1996 and got nowhere, but has done a lot of groundwork since then. The name of Dan Quayle may raise squeals of delight abroad, but he is a very serious politician with heavy financial backing, his own political action committee and plenty of backing from the conservative right.

The favourite of the media and the public at large is George W Bush, the perky son of the former President, who currently ocupies the governor's mansion in Austin, Texas. He has equivocated over whether he should run, saying he is worried about his family. He also has a colourful past, like most people of his age and background.

Mr Bush is one of the few people who might have a serious chance of beating Mr Gore, and claiming support from the centre ground. But the right has plenty of doubts about him, and it knows how to play dirty.

So does the White House. The politics of personal destruction could play havoc with his campaign, not to mention wrecking his life. If Mr Bush has been watching Mr Lott, Mr Gingrich and Mr Livingston, he may well decide that discretion is the better part of valour for the year 2000.