Clinton's launch marred by scandal

Amid a sudden, hugely embarrassing scandal over a key adviser, President Bill Clinton last night formally launched the last election campaign of his life by setting out a domestic reform blueprint for his next administration. If it comes about, he would be the first Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt to be elected to a second term.

Hours beforehand, however, the smooth unfolding of the Democratic convention here had been shattered by allegations that one of his key campaign strategists, Dick Morris, had a relationship with a prostitute, whom he had allowed to listen into to calls to the White House, and showed copies of speeches.

Mr Morris, 48, a controversial consultant who helped Mr Clinton in Arkansas in the early Eighties, has worked for both Democrats and Republicans over the last 20 years before being recalled by the President after the Democrats' midterm election disaster in 1994. He is widely credited with the shift to the centre which has helped Mr Clinton gain a commanding lead over Bob Dole, his Republican challenger this autumn. So influential had be become that his face appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

The allegations first appeared yesterday in the New York Post, which said it was approached by the woman in question offering a diary account of meetings with Mr Morris in a Washington hotel. Hours later he resigned - "so I don't become the issue." As Mr Clinton paid tribute to his friend as a "superb political strategist", the White House scrambled to minimise the damage to the President's acceptance speech.

In the perfervid world of American election campaigning, no figure is more revered and disliked, more suspected yet more essential, than the political consultant: the hired gun who will devise strategy and tactics to undermine the seemingly impregnable incumbent. And no one epitomises the breed as Dick Morris.

In recent years, consultants have become as famous as the candidates they work for. The late Lee Atwater was credited with George Bush's presidential victory in 1988. Four years later, the flamboyant James Carville, the "ragin' Cajun" from Louisiana, masterminded Bill Clinton's campaign from the famous Little Rock "War Room." Ditto Ed Rollins, a power behind the Reagan campaign of 1984. But at least they mostly worked for a single party.

Not, however, Dick Morris. He has worked for Democrats and Republicans in equal number. But there has been one common thread - his friendship with Bill Clinton. For Mr Morris, political creed is secondary. "What he does doesn't involve an ideology," a friend says. "You hire him because you want to win. You don't ask a doctor whether he's a Republican or a Democrat."

Devious, commandeering and grossly conceited, are some of the milder epithets attached to him by his foes. But, they concede, no one is a more skilful pollster, and none read the public mood better than Morris. The President's astounding recovery from political near-death after the Republican capture of Congress is testimony to Mr Morris's skills.

Now comes disgrace. Yesterday Mr Morris left his $650-a-night (pounds 42O) suite at the Chicago Sheraton where he had been staying along with the Clintons and the Gores, to return to Connecticut. And even before he went, the Republicans were making hay. "He's not tethered to any principle," sneered Haley Barbour, the Republican party chairman, "Bill Clinton is the perfect candidate for him."

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