President in crisis: Video causes panic in both camps

`We have two Democratic parties now'
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AS THE White House battles to contain Republican rhetoric on Capitol Hill, a second campaign has been initiated. Its purpose is to persuade wavering Democrats in Congress to stand by the President and resist the temptation to lambaste him publicly.

Keeping the Democrats, or as many of them as possible, on Bill Clinton's side has become one of the White House's most urgent missions.

About 40 Democrats in Congress have been identified as high-risk. A commando team of presidential aides is telephoning them daily and exhorting them to keep their suspected disloyalty to themselves.

A split in Democratic sentiment is already evident, however. "What we have now is two Democratic parties," commented William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard magazine, yesterday.

While large numbers of Democrats are either keeping their own counsel or are working with the White House to counter the Republican offensive, a significant handful may already be lost to the President.

"We're taking it day by day and working our butts off," conceded one long-time Clinton advisor, James Carville.

Privately, the White House believes that about one-third of the 40 lawmakers who have been treated to the daily phone calls have already concluded that the President's cause is a lost one.

The first sign of trouble came two weeks ago, when Senator Joseph Lieberman made his milestone speech on the Senate floor in which he lashed Mr Clinton for his "immoral" conduct with Monica Lewinsky. In a similar vein, the Democratic leader in the Senate, Tom Daschle, last week accused Mr Clinton of "legalistic hair-splitting".

Another weak link is Senator Diane Feinstein of California. She has very publicly denounced the President for his behaviour and last week revealed that she had spurned a request from Mr Clinton that she should speak with him.

The agonising in the ranks of the Democratic Party has everything to do with the imminence of mid-term congressional elections, which are now less than seven weeks away.

On the one hand, a splintering of the ranks could further imperil Democrat chances at the polls. On the other, candidates must wrestle with a desperate dilemma: will they fare better if they denounce their party leader or should they continue to display some loyalty towards him.

In their darkest moments, strategists for the party fear they are moving towards a disaster. There now seems little chance that the Democrats can pull off a net gain of 11 seats, which is what they need to regain a majority in the House of Representatives.

The Democrats may, in fact, now lose seats overall. Almost worse than that prospect is the spectre of the Republicans gaining enough seats in the Senate to gain a 60-40 majority, the largest any party has had since 1909.

"The toughest day for Clinton is going to be the day after the election," predicted Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster. "When Democratic leaders are asked what happened, there will only be one answer - Bill Clinton. That's when the anger will come out and the real cannibalisation is going to occur."

Aside from partisan humiliation, the results of the election could clearly have a direct impact on whether the President will face impeachment. If the Democrats return to Capitol Hill next January in diminished, rather than augmented, numbers, it will become all the more difficult for them to resist Republican moves towards ousting Mr Clinton.

Until now, at least, the White House has been able to use the President's high approval rating among American voters to stem the flow of defections.

Even that may now be slipping away from them, however, as the latest polls suggest that disenchantment with Mr Clinton is starting to take hold across the country.

The Democrats also have one other vital weapon: the loyalty of Vice-President Al Gore. But as "Gore 1998" placards begin to pop up outside Clinton-Gore fund-raisers, a quite different and highly dangerous dynamic may be gaining momentum: a growing acceptance that Al Gore in the White House may be a better option for the party than a wounded and grievously bleeding Bill Clinton.

It hardly helps the White House that last Friday found Mr Gore looking entirely presidential as he paid a visit to New Hampshire, the New England state that symbolises White House aspirations. And some headline writers seized at the weekend on one word uttered by Gore - that the President's cavortings with Lewinsky had indeed been "indefensible".

Overwhelmingly, however, Mr Gore has continued to stand by his senior partner. "The way it will end up is he will finish his term with a distinguished record and will go down in history as a virtuoso performance," Mr Gore said of the president in New Hampshire.

It sounds loyal enough. But Mr Clinton's aides will scarcely welcome the imminent launch by the conservative-leaning Democratic Leadership Council of a new magazine. Named Blueprint, the publication will be heavily biased towards the prospects of a Gore presidency.