Clinton's critics on the back foot

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THE WHITE HOUSE campaign to defend Bill Clinton has scored a series of successes, leaving his critics wrong- footed at the end of a dramatic week.

The President has staged a remarkable recovery in public esteem as discontent increasingly focuses on his Congressional accusers and not on him. Mr Clinton's counter-attack against charges from the independent counsel, Kenneth Starr, has moved into overdrive, with the President's lawyers also discussing a settlement of the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit, which began the whole sorry affair.

Opinion polls released yesterday show that the President's approval rating has again risen, reaching 67 per cent, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll.

Perceptions of his personal image have also rebounded, with 45 per cent of the public now having a favourable image, up from 39 per cent 10 days ago.

A clear majority say they disapprove of the way in which the Republican- dominated Judiciary Committee has handled the matter. Even a majority of Republicans believe that the video of the President's testimony should not have been released.

Mr Clinton's lawyers are discussing a settlement with Paula Jones, the former Arkansas employee who brought charges of sexual harassment against Mr Clinton. It was this case - subsequently dismissed by a judge - that sparked the Monica Lewinsky affair, since most of the accusations in the Starr report centre on perjury and obstruction of justice in this case.

Ms Jones had appealed, and a conclusion to this matter will go a long way towards easing the President's problems. The settlement centres on a payment of $1m (pounds 600,000) to Ms Jones, but no apology or acceptance of blame in any way by the President.

The Republicans have apparently scored an own goal by releasing the video of the President's testimony, but the White House is also running a highly effective campaign to change the public perception of events. It has managed to manoeuvre Republicans into the public's sights as the villains - in particular Newt Gingrich, the unpopular Speaker of the House.

Hillary Clinton has signalled that she will be taking on a new high-profile role in the forthcoming Congressional elections, effectively replacing her husband on the hustings where she has been eagerly embraced by Democratic candidates.

The Lewinsky affair has also had the effect of mobilising right-wing Republicans, and they are likely to vote in strength in the Congressional elections next month.

But there is growing evidence that more moderate Republicans are increasingly wary. Among the most likely voters, the Republicans have a solid majority of 53 per cent to 41 per cent. But even here there is scant consolation for Mr Clinton's opponents: a USA Today/CNN poll shows the Democrats edging into the lead.

The President yesterday went on the offensive again, charging the Republicans with negligence and partisan obsession for leaving key spending bills unpassed. "A few moments ago I signed stop-gap legislation to keep the government open and running at the start of the new fiscal year," he told reporters.

"By failing to meet its most basic governing responsibilities, the Republican majority in Congress has its priorities wrong: partisanship over progress, politics over people," said Mr Clinton, in what is becoming a familiar refrain.

Republicans were defensive on television talk shows yesterday, scrambling to regain control of a process that seems to be slipping away from them. The more right-wing among them have every intention of pressing on, because their supporters are keen and because they believe they will mop up votes. More moderate ones have their doubts.