The Starr Report: Clinton begins his comeback

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BILL CLINTON'S chances of remaining in office, if very heavily damaged, have improved as the public starts to assess the catalogue of charges levelled against him. The prospect of a deal whereby he partially confesses, and is not impeached, was raised by a leading Republican senator, and is believed to be under discussion in the White House.

The Congress is very likely to proceed with impeachment hearings on the basis of both the Starr report and other allegations against the President, including charges that he engaged in questionable fund-raising practices in the 1996 election, reports last night said.

But the Starr allegations relating to perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power over his relationship with Monica Lewinsky may not themselves lead to impeachment. Congress has until 28 September to examine the Starr report and supporting documents.

Despite the prospect of hearings, the President's defence team was buoyed by opinion polls which suggest that the public wants a lesser punishment than impeachment, and by public anger at the amount of graphic detail which Kenneth Starr included in his report. The descriptions of sexual acts in the report have undermined its credibility - an aspect that the White House has seized on and will use as a key argument in days to come. "Our point is that the Starr report is full of graphic and unnecessary salacious detail," said Mr Clinton's lawyer, David Kendall, yesterday. "It's a smear both of the president and Ms Lewinsky."

By a hefty majority, a CBS poll shows that Americans think Mr Starr has included too much lurid detail in his report, and that he did so principally to embarrass the President. Most people believe the report is unbalanced and one-sided, and Mr Starr himself still has few friends among the American public. However, more than half of those polled believe Mr Starr's version; only a third believe the President.

The White House rebuttal of the charges made little impact, with only 25 per cent believing that it carried any weight, and there is evidence that the White House is divided over its future strategy. Many of the President's key advisers are reportedly urging him to back away from the claim that he did not lie - which may be legally arguable, but is hardly convincing. However the lawyers - and Mr Kendall in particular - continue to plug this argument. "There is no perjury shown in this report," he said yesterday. "Perjury is a crime in which you have to intentionally lie."

Orrin Hatch, a Republican senator and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, let slip some intriguing details of a conversation he had with Mr Clinton that indicates some sort of deal may be stitched up between the President and Congress. In a "very hard-hitting" conversation, he told the Mr Clinton that he may be able to save his presidency with contrition and sincerity.

"If the President would drop his legalistic approach to perjury, he could survive," Mr Hatch said. "If he'll quit splitting legal hairs, If he'll quit playing this legal game and start being what he is, a basically warm winning person who the American people have liked from the beginning ... and just acknowledge, 'Yeah, I've done some really bad things, I've really screwed up here', my gosh, I think the President could get through this."

Opinion polls show the immediate impact of the release of the Starr report has done little to affect the President's approval ratings. An ABC News poll from Saturday shows that Mr Clinton's approval rating has held up, at 59 per cent,marginally below his average for the year. The percentage saying he should stay in office is up five points from Friday to 55 per cent.

Although the public mood has toughened in terms of the punishment demanded, it is towards censure, not impeachment. The CBS poll shows increasing support for censuring the President, up to 56 per cent from 49 per cent last week. More people believe that it would be better if he resigned than last week - 31 per cent, up from 26 per cent - but the majority, 66 per cent, still believe it would be better for the country if the President completed his term of office.

The key argument now iswhether or not the charges in the Starr report merit impeachment. The White House has argued that, although Mr Clinton misled the public, they do not. His lawyers say it is a personal matter and he has apologised. "He committed no impeachable offences and none are in this report," said Mr Kendall.

A report of a video showing Mr Clinton with a young woman entering a room near the Oval Office was released yesterday by Matt Drudge, the Internet journalist. No further details were available, but the implication was that more stories of infidelity have yet to emerge.