Clinton goes visiting as support fades

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The Independent Online
PRESIDENT Bill Clinton yesterday went among the American people for the first time since his televised admission of a "not appropriate" relationship with Monica Lewinsky in a short excursion to test whether he could still work his personal magic on the voters.

The exercise, in a city described as the most Democratic in the country, came amid signs that senior Democrats and members of Mr Clinton's administration fear his conduct will be an electoral liability.

His re-emergence coincided with more bad news for the Democrats after the announcement by the Attorney- General, Janet Reno, that she was launching a new investigation into the legality of fund-raising by Vice-President Al Gore before the last election. It supplements an existing fund-raising inquiry and will consider new and damaging evidence that Mr Gore may have lied to investigators in an earlier investigation.

While the new inquiry means Ms Reno is still resisting Republican pressure to appoint an independent prosecutor into Mr Gore's activities, it adds another wave to the tide of dubious conduct and sleaze lapping at the Clinton presidency.

Mr Clinton's appearance began in mid-morning, when he left his borrowed holiday estate on Martha's Vineyard for Worcester, a half-hour flight away. The occasion was a hastily arranged forum on school safety and juvenile crime, and a party fund-raising event.

The previous day his Democratic hosts had dominated the airwaves to evince unalloyed delight that he was to honour their city with a visit and said there had been no difficulty filling the 2,000 seats, even at two days' notice. During his brief address, largely a pastiche of speeches given in recent weeks, Mr Clinton looked tired and at times slightly distracted. He had bags under his eyes, and, unusually, stumbled twice over his words.

Preparations for his trip came amid speculation that he was preparing to say something more, perhaps even apologise for, his affair with Ms Lewinsky. While accepted, according to polls, by most voters, his admission 10 days before was assessed by many advisers as a failure. Their main criticism was that it had lacked contrition and exhibited defiance towards the independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr.

In the event, Mr Clinton said nothing yesterday about the affair or the other pressing subject of the day, the Russian economic collapse and accompanying fall of the US stock market.

Mr Clinton's silence on his relationship with Ms Lewinsky was seen as a victory for his lawyer and his wife over White House advisers who were said to have argued strongly for a fuller and more abject statement that would dispel memories of the earlier admission.

Mr Clinton's personal lawyer, David Kendall, was said to have strongly opposed any further statement because of the legal risk. Mrs Clinton was also said to be opposed on the grounds that it would simply perpetuate public discussion of a hurtful episode that she would prefer to keep private.

But the arguments said to be raging in the White House over a further statement were being replicated up and down the Democratic hierarchy. Republican contenders for seats in November's mid-term congressional elections are already starting to campaign on a "morality and credibility" platform. Barbara Boxer, one of California's senators, who is related by marriage to Mrs Clinton and faces a close contest in November, was berated repeatedly on the subject during a televised candidates' debate on Wednesday.

The White House is simultaneously increasing pressure on leading Democrats to toe the official line more enthusiastically in public. This boils down to indignation about the "violation of the President's private life", regret for what happened, and determination to "get this matter behind us and get back to running the country".

Dick Gephardt, Democrat minority leader in the House of Representatives and a possible rival of Mr Gore for the presidential nomination in 2000, has shifted his ground on Mr Clinton's conduct. He initially condemned it as "reprehensible" and said he could not immediately rule out impeachment hearings. Since then, Mr Gephardt has given two interviews, stressing the need to "get this matter behind us" and wait for Mr Starr's report.