Clinton support starts to slide

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BILL CLINTON'S future as President rests today with the American people, as television stations across the US prepare to broadcast his unexpurgated testimony about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky and the latest poll shows a leap in the number of those who believe he should resign.

The broadcast, all four hours and 12 minutes of it, coincides with his keynote speech at the opening session of the UN General Assembly. Two faces of the world's most powerful man - international statesman and shamed womaniser - will be juxtaposed in one of the most surreal political and media events ever.

Mr Clinton will first deliver a speech at the General Assembly before appearing alongside Tony Blair at a conference on the global economy.

Predictions about the likely public response to Mr Clinton's video testimony were hard to call. Some forecast a cataclysmic fall in his ratings on a scale similar to the defection from Richard Nixon after the Watergate tapes were released.

The latest polls indicate that public opinion could be drawing more into line with the views of opinion-formers - politicians, legal analysts and newspaper editorial writers - who are calling for Mr Clinton's resignation.

A poll for Newsweek magazine, released yesterday, showed the proportion of those who believe the President should resign had increased by seven percentage points over the past week, to 46 per cent.

The number of those supporting impeachment had risen similarly, to 41 per cent. Mr Clinton's personal approval rating fell, by three points, to 58 per cent, the first time it has fallen below 60 per cent since the Lewinsky allegations became public in January.

While four US cable channels will broadcast Mr Clinton's taped testimony in full, the US networks were in a quandary, not only about how much of Mr Clinton's sometimes explicit testimony to broadcast, but also about the likely size of the audience. While Americans tell polling organisations that they have little interest in (or are bored or disgusted by) the Lewinsky affair, television and radio ratings tell a different story: that they cannot get enough of it.

Almost two-thirds of Americans told pollsters that they thought the tape should not be made public, while a bare half said in advance that they would watch it. Television companies, however, believe that viewing figures could be as high as for Mr Clinton's televised confession last month, if not higher.

White House officials spent the final hours before today's broadcast trying to subdue expectations of new shocks, and lawyers from the Clinton camp played up the remorse and contrition in Mr Clinton's answers.

Republicans kept a judicious distance, leaving the moral outrage to be expressed by speakers at the Christian Coalition convention that was also, by unhappy chance, meeting in Washington at the weekend.

The proximity of mid-term congressional elections in November was seen as one reason the House judiciary committee voted so convincingly to make the material public. Republicans are uncertain how far to press their advantage in the morality stakes if Mr Clinton's personal popularity remains high, while Democrats worry that the steady stream of revelations about his conduct could lose them their jobs.

Neither side is sufficiently confident of the public mood as to definitively support or oppose the institution of impeachment hearings. The publication of the prosecutor's report and the broadcast of Mr Clinton's testimony makes the evidence available directly to the American public, and with it the ultimate responsibility for deciding Mr Clinton's fate.

Clinton's crisis, pages 10 and 11