Clinton's support starts to crumble

Lewinsky scandal: Democrats fear election disaster, and even the leader of the President's church says he should go
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AS THE leader of his own church urged Bill Clinton to resign the United States presidency, anxiety was mounting yesterday about the huge toll that the Monica Lewinsky scandal may take on both the work programme of Congress in Washington and the election prospects of Democratic candidates across the country.

Mr Clinton's party is confronting the prospect of calamity at the polls in November, when voters will determine the shape of the next Congress as well as the governorships of numerous states, including California. Yesterday's Labor Day holiday marked the traditional start of the campaign season with political rallies and picnics in many pivotal battlegrounds.

Some commentators warn that the continuing Lewinsky scandal, and the damage many expect to be wreaked on the President by the report from the independent counsel, Kenneth Starr, has already wrecked the Democrats' hopes of winning back 11 seats in the House of Representatives and regaining their majority.

The report could reach Congress by the end of this week. Some predict that the Republicans could secure 60 seats in the Senate, a majority stronger than any they have enjoyed since 1909.

"Starr is crippling to Democrat candidates trying to run their own campaigns," commented John Frerejohn, a political scientist at Stanford University in California. "They don't know how to react, what to defend."

Further embarrassment came to the President from Paige Patterson, head of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the US. Mr Patterson said Mr Clinton, who is a Baptist, should step down "before he is instrumental in corrupting all our young people".

Mr Patterson said the President should leave Washington "for the sake of the country". He voiced concern about the apparent willingness of many Americans to stand by Mr Clinton in spite of his extramarital indulgences. "This bespeaks a certain enthrallment with materialism, which is exactly what caused the demise of Rome, to say nothing of 21 other great civilisations. It will kill us too," Mr Patterson said.

A consensus appears to be coalescing that a formal censure of the President by Congress is the smallest punishment he can expect, while predictions of full impeachment proceedings multiply. "I now don't think that is really an option," Democratic representative, James Moran, told Fox News about a censure resolution. "I think we're bound to go through with impeachment proceedings."

It is a change in mood that can be traced back squarely to the extraordinary dressing down of the President delivered on the Senate floor last Thursday by Senator Joseph Lieberman. Mr Lieberman said the President's actions had been "immoral" and deserving of "formal rebuke".

Democrats are none the less divided over what Mr Clinton's fate should be. Kurt Schmoke, the mayor of Baltimore and a prominent party figure, yesterday chastised the governor of Maryland, Parris Glendenning, for withdrawing at the weekend an invitation to Mr Clinton to be a fund-raiser for his own fragile re-election effort. "It's just politics masquerading as principle," Mr Schmoke insisted. "The best thing we can let the President do, for all of us, is to stay as focused on possible on doing the people's work."

With Congress due to reconvene after the Labor Day break tomorrow, alarm bells are sounding that a busy work schedule, ranging from votes on next year's federal budget to an important Senate debate on changing election fund-raising laws, will be sidetracked by the scandal.

"We have a crisis of the regime," Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned at the weekend. "This is a distraction which is doubly dangerous because of the world situation."

However, with Congress due to be dissolved on 9 October, ahead of the November elections, and no further attendance on the Hill expected until the new Congress convenes next year, there is almost no prospect that any impeachment process could seriously be engaged until next January.

On the hustings, meanwhile, voter lethargy arising from disgust with the whole Lewinsky circus may prove to be the greatest enemy of the Democrats. Low turn-outs on polling days have traditionally helped Republican candidates.

"We're finding real apathy. The scandal is causing people to be disillusioned with politics and politicians," said Bobi Johnson, campaign manager for the Democrat representative George Brown, who is fighting to retain his California House seat.

Washington observers were last night questioning whether the President had been "hobbled" - his authority so undermined to the point of rendering him ineffective and the country rudderless.

Colin Campbell, the director of the Public Policy Institute at Georgetown University said: "His capacity to deploy moral suasion is going to be greatly diminished."

Even if Mr Starr's report adds no new dimensions, laying out all he has learnt in months of investigation is likely to cause more Democrats to cut their ties from Mr Clinton, thus further isolating him.