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White House chief plans to axe Clinton's losing team

A SHAKE-UP in President Bill Clinton's senior staff is expected within a week, as the White House tries to improve the President's popularity before Congressional elections in November.

With only 40 per cent of Americans approving of Mr Clinton, according to the latest poll, the new White House chief of staff, Leon Panetta, is expected to change staff members who deal with the media. After returning from a twelve-day holiday in Martha's Vineyard yesterday, Mr Clinton is known to feel that he is the victim of hostility from press and television, who belittle his achievements. Dogged by allegations over business dealings and his sex life in Arkansas, he needs to rebut Republican attacks on his character.

Mr Panetta asked for broad powers to hire and fire when he was appointed, and is expected to seek changes in the White House communications staff. Among those under threat are Deedee Myers, the White House spokeswoman and Mark Gearan, the head of communications.

The White House fears heavy Democratic losses in Congress in November. This would make it more difficult for Mr Clinton to pass his domestic agenda before the 1996 presidential election. He is unlikely to salvage his health care package, intended to be the centre-piece of his presidency. So he needs to attack the Republicans as obstacles to reform.

Visits by President Nelson Mandela of South Africa and the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, before November, will boost Mr Clinton's standing. He may be helped if the invasion of Haiti takes place and is a success.

No less than 52 per cent of Americans disapprove of the way Mr Clinton handles his job and only 40 per cent approve, according to a Time magazine poll. Some 40 per cent say they will vote for the Republicans in the Congressional elections and only 38 per cent for the Democrats.

The Democrats expect to lose three Senate seats and between 18 and 22 House seats, but the losses may be worse. Democrats are trailing in former safe seats. In Pennsylvania the election of Harris Wofford to the Senate in 1991 as an advocate of health care reform started a trend which won Mr Clinton the presidency a year later. This time, Senator Wofford's staff say Mr Clinton is a liability.

A shake-up in the White House may be the prelude to other changes. The most important would be the replacement of Warren Christopher as Secretary of State, probably by Walter Mondale, a former vice-president and now ambassador to Japan. 'The problem about Christopher,' said one White House aide, 'is that 30 years ago you could have a Secretary of State who was a negotiator pure and simple, but now you need somebody who looks and sounds forceful.'

A big problem for the administration is that the President and his wife do not like sharing power with anybody. This led them to appoint people of limited authority to key posts, such as Mr Clinton's old kindergarten friend, Mack McLarty, as chief of staff, and Mr Christopher.