Sex scandal? It's all a right-wing conspiracy, insists defiant Hillary

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The White House launched an all-out war to save Bill Clinton's presidency yesterday. A stunning television performance by the First Lady was just the first move in a media offensive calculated to drown out his accusers. Our Washington Correspondent reports on the day that may prove to have turned the tide.

With the President closeted in his study completing his State of the Union address, his wife Hillary took on the might of the American media. In an interview remarkable for its calm confidence and spontaneity, Mrs Clinton set out to rescue her husband for history; and she may have succeeded. Timed cannily for the early part of the nation's top-rated breakfast show, her interview dominated the debate all day. Wearing a golden brooch in the form of the American double-headed eagle on her jacket, she lashed out at the innuendo and attacks on Mr Clinton and defended him to the hilt, as a president and a husband.

Some of the themes of a calculated fightback took shape. Mrs Clinton blamed a "vast right-wing conspiracy" for the allegations about the President and the White House trainee, Monica Lewinsky. Raising the spectre of American democracy undermined, she described the claims as just the latest attempt by their enemies to "undo the results of two elections".

"Bill and I have been accused of everything, including murder, by some of the very same people who are behind these allegations," she said coolly. And she named names: the independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, who has widened his inquiry into the Whitewater land deal in the Clintons' home state of Arkansas to encompass the latest charges, the right-wing television evangelist, Jerry Falwell, and the Republican conservative senator, Jesse Helms.

As for persistent allegations about her husband's infidelity, Mrs Clinton said: "You know, we've been married for 22 years ... and I have learnt a long time ago that the only people who count in any marriage are the two that are in it. We know everything there is to know about each other and we understand and accept and love each other."

She also paved the way for a new version of Mr Clinton's relationship with Ms Lewinsky - which neither he nor his aides have denied. It was presented as a fatherly, charitable response to a mixed-up young woman rather than a romantic liaison. "He is an extremely generous person," she said. "He is kind, he is friendly, he tries to help people who need help."

If Mr Clinton survives as president, he has his wife to thank - for the second time. Six years ago when his campaign looked doomed, it was she who went on television to speak of the "pain" in their marriage following allegations of an affair with Gennifer Flowers. That appearance left Mr Clinton immune from allegations about his private life - until now.

Mrs Clinton's interview, on NBC's Today show, was the latest, and most forceful salvo in what she described as "a battle" and others have described as "a war". White House strategists flooded the media with laudatory forecasts about the content of Mr Clinton's State of the Union address last night.

There was also fierce denunciation from Clinton allies for the methods used by his detractors, including the secret recordings of Ms Lewinsky's conversations, and the extending of the legal investigation into the Clintons' Arkansas land deal to include Mr Clinton's alleged liaison.

There was also fuel for the Clinton defence in a new poll, conducted for the New York Times, which showed approval for Mr Clinton's moral qualities in sharp decline, but approval for his performance as President holding up well. A majority of those asked even maintained that if he were guilty of everything he has been accused of, he should still not be impeached.

This continuing grassroots support provides a base on which the White House can build the President's defence, and it appeared intent on doing so. Yesterday, Vice-President Al Gore was out mustering support from leading Democrats which has so far been conspicuously absent.

Tony Blair also gave Mr Clinton a message of support during a 15-minute business call initiated by the President yesterday afternoon, telling him "that he had been following events and that he was thinking of him". In a brief exchange - during a conversation about Northern Ireland, Iraq, and the Middle East - the President replied that "they would be able to talk about it more next week", when the Prime Minister goes to Washington for a three-day visit.

It may also have cheered the President to know that he was nominated for the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize by three members of the Norwegian parliament.