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Clinton takes to the airwaves to mend image

HE CAMPAIGNED as a Washington outsider and now, his presidency already pecked by the capital's political carrion birds, Bill Clinton is hoping to reach out again to voters in 'real America' by way of satellite and the airwaves.

The shift in strategy, designed to give the President direct access to the public without the increasingly critical filter of traditional White House press correspondents, comes when he is preparing to unveil a crucial and certain-to-be- controversial package of economic measures and as he finds himself reeling again from an illegal alien glitch in the search for an attorney-general.

He began with a five-minute, nationwide radio broadcast on Saturday, which the White House says will become a weekly ritual, following a pattern set by Ronald Reagan but given up by George Bush.

On Wednesday, Mr Clinton travels to Detroit for an 'electronic town-hall' meeting on live television, when he will answer questions from an audience there and others linked by satellite from studios in Atlanta, Miami and Seattle. The format was used to great effect by Mr Clinton in his election campaign.

In his Saturday broadcast, Mr Clinton avoided all reference to the latest disaster to hit his attempts to nominate an attorney-general, namely the revelation late on Friday that the woman widely tipped as his choice - the New York Federal Judge, Kimba Wood - had been forced to withdraw her name because she hired an illegal alien as a baby-sitter seven years ago. The development was an instant media sensation, pushing Mr Clinton's main achievement of the day, signing a family leave bill, to the bottom of the news bulletins.

While the White House was left once again to resume its search for an appropriate candidate, controversy over the fate of Judge Wood escalated over the weekend, with women's groups alleging that double-standards were being applied in the appointments process, with female candidates, but not male ones, being grilled on their domestic help arrangements.

Ron Brown, the new US Commerce Secretary, said yesterday that he had never employed an illegal alien, but had failed to pay on time Social Security taxes for a part-time household employee. He said he was not asked about household help during his confirmation hearings.

There is also a feeling that the White House had almost panicked in ditching Judge Wood so swiftly on Friday, given that her offence did not appear nearly so egregious as that admitted to by the first nominee for the job, Zoe Baird, who was found to have broken the law by hiring illegal aliens. Though Judge Wood employed an illegal immigrant to baby-sit for her in 1986 she was, at that time, breaking no law.

Though the point was conceded yesterday by the Vice-President, Al Gore, he said that the question over Judge Wood's hiring of the baby-sitter meant that she did not match the 'comfort- level' the President was looking for in making a new choice - an indication that no element of risk, especially where illegal aliens are concerned, is any longer acceptable in this matter.

Those now thought to be under consideration for the post include the former Virginia governor and long-time political ally of Mr Clinton, Gerald Baliles. Another possible candidate, a Washington lawyer, Charles Ruff, has reportedly been ruled out - also because of questions involving the hiring of a maid.

On the radio Mr Clinton focused on his forthcoming economic package, to be presented formally to Congress on 17 February in his State of the Union address. He tried to play down speculation on possible reductions in social security benefits and emphasise instead the expected tax hikes for the rich.