Election perils of sleeping with the enemy

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'. . . never was a story of more woe

Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.'

ALL IS FAIR in love, war and politics. But what happens when foul politics and true love collide? The result is a story-line worthy of sub-Shakespearian comic opera: rival political consultants in love.

Mary Matalin, deputy manager of George Bush's re-election campaign, suggested last week that the Clinton campaign was 'lower than a snake's belly'. She was responding to James Carville, chief strategist for Governor Bill Clinton, who had said Bush campaign tactics 'started around the belly button' and worked down.

Mary and James, among the toughest and most able political operatives in the business, are lovers. Officially, their relationship is suspended while they wrestle, metaphorically, in the gutter. In fact, say friends, the couple see each other whenever opposing campaign schedules permit. They were recently spotted emerging hand in hand from the Cactus Cantina on Wisconsin Avenue, in Washington DC. Presumably, they never talk about their work.

It was Ms Matalin who began last week's row, with a fax to news organisations headlined 'Snivelling, Hypocritical Democrats - Stand Up and Be Counted'. The fax raised, once again, questions about Governor Clinton's love life. After President Bush publicly repudiated Mary, James found himself defending both his employer, who had been smeared, and his girlfriend, who smeared him. 'You can hate the sin,' he said, 'and love the sinner.'

Ms Matalin, 38, refers to Mr Carville, 47, in private as 'my James' and in public as the 'axe- murdering political consultant from hell'. In this month's issue of Vogue, Ms Matalin says: 'If James ever proposes to me, I will accept.' But she also says she often feels the urge to 'rip the face off' Mr Carville. After her attempt at fax-murder last week, Mr Carville said Ms Matalin should be called 'Bloody Mary'. But he added: 'Make it clear I said that in a jocular tone.'

Sleeping with the enemy is not unusual in Washington. Mr Bush's daughter Dorothy recently married a senior assistant to Congressman Richard Gephardt, the Democratic majority leader in the House of Representatives. The Senate majority leader, George Mitchell (Democrat) is dating Janet Mullins, Assistant Secretary of State (Republican).

In most cases Republican women are involved with Democratic men. Why should this be so? 'There is a dearth of Republican men you'd want to date,' said Torie Clarke, press secretary of the Bush campaign, who is engaged to a Democrat.

What is unusual is for directly opposed senior officials in presidential campaigns to be in love. A Democratic strategist said: 'They are very sweet with one another, and sweet is not the word you'd use to describe their characters taken separately.'

John Sununu, the former White House chief of staff, and Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, a senior Bush crony, have attempted to have Ms Matalin demoted for what she describes as her 'dangerous liaison'. Mr Bush has refused. Ms Matalin is too valuable to dump, even after her blunder last week. (If it was a blunder. Some conspiratorial Democrats believe it is part of a deliberate Republican hard cop / soft cop strategy. Ms Matalin, in a television interview yesterday, said the President broadly approved of what she had said about Mr Clinton).

Ms Matalin is a valuable commodity for two reasons. She is the only woman at a senior level in the Bush campaign. She is also - as the daughter of a steelworker and a beautician from Chicago - the only non-patrician in the campaign hierarchy and the only person with the street-fighting instincts of her late boss and mentor, Lee Atwater, who master- minded Mr Bush's victory in 1988.

The Carville-Matalin story suggests that political consultants are hired guns with no profoundly held views of their own. This may be true of many, but a friend of Mr Carville says it is not true of either James or Mary. Both take their politics personally and passionately. Neither is a typical political consultant or a typical Democrat or Republican.

Mr Carville, usually dressed in jeans and T-shirt, is famed for his savage wit. When asked if the Clinton camp would welcome back Hamilton Jordan, the senior Democrat who defected to Ross Perot, he said: 'I wouldn't piss down his throat if his heart was on fire.' Ms Matalin fails to meet the ideal of Republican womanhood. She has flowing dark hair and wears either elegant long dresses or jeans and midriff-revealing tank tops.

'The point is,' says a Democratic official, 'you and I may be relatively normal individuals. But James Carville and Mary Matalin are two of a kind. They are special, passionate, driven, very amusing characters. I'm trying hard not to use the word nutty. They are unique individuals, who find a lot of enjoyment in one another.'

(Photographs omitted)