Nomination of liberal lands Clinton in new fracas

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WITH adjustments in both personnel and economic policy, President Clinton has been clambering desperately back towards the political centre. But his hopes of recapturing lost momentum have been rudely interrupted by a new fracas, over his nomination of a controversial liberal nominee to a key post at the Justice Department.

Last night Mr Clinton summoned to the White House Lani Guinier, the black law professor he has picked to head the Department's civil rights division, amid speculation he had decided to withdraw her nomination in the face of intense hostility on Capitol Hill. Since the hair's breadth survival of his tax- and deficit-cutting proposals in the House last week, Mr Clinton has offered a string of concessions to woo conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans, from the appointment of former Republican strategist David Gergen to the White House inner circle to the announcement of his readiness to accept major changes in the economic package.

For the first time, in Milwaukee this week, Mr Clinton said explicitly he would agree to the deeper spending cuts and much-reduced energy tax demanded by rebellious Democrats, whose objections have threatened to doom the entire package when discussion begins in the Senate Finance Committee next week.

All, however, has been lost amid the rumpus over Ms Guinier. On its own the fuss would be political small change. But yet again, as a result of poor staff work and his own obvious trouble in making up his mind, Mr Clinton is caught between a rock and a hard place. For the last two days, to appease the same conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans, the White House has been inelegantly manoeuvring to drop her nomination and escape a bloody confirmation battle on Capitol Hill, which the President would almost certainly lose.

'I don't see how she can survive,' one highly placed official said of Ms Guinier, whose past advocacy of special treatment for blacks in the electoral process has alienated many mainstream Democrats, while conservatives have long demonised her as a 'quota queen'. Mr Clinton's own expressions of loyalty have become damningly lukewarm. Alas, Ms Guinier is refusing to take the hint.

With the strong public backing of the Attorney General, Janet Reno, and convinced her views have been grotesquely misrepresented, she has appeared on television shows and in editorial offices to demand she be given a fair hearing on Capitol Hill. Black, civil rights and women's groups - all vital constituencies for Mr Clinton - have mounted a vocal campaign in her defence. Her sacrifice would also be seen by many as further evidence of his proneness to buckle at the first sign of trouble.

But with a new CBS poll putting Mr Clinton's approval rating at a Carter-like 37 per cent, the White House's overriding strategic priority is to regain the political middle ground where Mr Clinton has spent most of his career, and re-establish his credentials as a 'New Democrat', rather than a 'tax-and-spend' liberal.

Yesterday, it was still unclear whether Mr Clinton would steel himself to ditch Ms Guinier, a close friend of both himself and his wife. In a further gesture to political realities, the White House is letting it be known Mr Clinton's ambitious health care plan will be delayed again - at least until July and probably autumn.