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Clinton carries on the campaign with talk-in

BILL CLINTON yesterday opened his extraordinary 'electronic town-hall' conference, to which the corporate, financial and academic cream of America have been summoned, warning that, for all the recent signs of recovery, the country still faced massive economic difficulties, short-term and long-term alike.

It was 'far too early' to assume the US was shaking free of the recession, the president-elect said. And even if it was, the improvement offered no respite from underlying problems, notably the budget deficit and runaway health care costs, which undermine the country's competitiveness.

The occasion was unprecedented in recent US history. For two days, 330 corporate and financial leaders, bankers, small businessmen, unionists and scholars have come together for a talk-in on the economy, a seminar carried live on television and radio to the nation, chaired and orchestrated by the man who in 36 days will take over as the 42nd President.

Little of immmediate concrete import will emerge from the discussions in Little Rock. No decisions will be taken; any conclusions will be broad-brush in the extreme. But if all goes well, the conference will serve many purposes: informative; educational; and as a signpost for the economic measures promised early on in the next administration.

Above all, it is a new opportunity for the US to witness Mr Clinton in the two roles he likes best, the brainstormer with an awesome grasp of policy, and the politician for whom campaigning is an addiction. Theoretically the battle was won on 3 November; but the Little Rock spectacular in many ways is an extension of it.

Indeed, a cynic would detect the first attempt to win over for the 1996 election that 19 per cent of voters who backed Ross Perot. The Texas billionaire made the most dazzling use of direct television to convey his message of economic hard truths. That technique and those themes were uppermost in what Mr Clinton called a 'process to reconnect the American people to their government'.

Armed with charts and graphics, Ivy-League professors and business chiefs trooped to the lectern to make their assessments. Four main worries predominated: the federal deficit; health spending; the deteriorating infrastructure; and flagging educational and training standards. Unless they were tackled, speakers warned, the US' relative economic decline was likely to continue.

Harvard University's John White, architect of Mr Perot's harsh economic therapies but now a convert to Clintonism, said the deficit, far from decreasing, would stick at around dollars 300bn (pounds 198bn) and rise further at the end of the decade if nothing were done. Central to the problem was health care, which will consume more than 13 per cent of America's GNP in 1992, half as much again as any other industrialised nation.

If the conference hastens resolution of these and other issues, it will be worthwhile. But, analysts say, the president-elect is taking a risk. As the economy improves, the sense of crisis is receding. Mr Clinton may end up reinforcing a public impression he has fought to dispel: that he is a man who is all talk, and little action.