In the hour of Bill Clinton's most critical need the White House rallied round, and even landed a few punches not have it all their own way

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TAKE a look through the kaleidoscope at Washington. What do you see? A President who has consistently lied and obstructed justice to conceal an illicit sexual relationship, first to keep it from a court of law, then from a properly constituted investigation. Stout-hearted defenders of the constitution in Congress, doing their best to make sure all the facts are clear, all the evidence public.

Now twist the device, just a little, and look again. What do you see now? A pack of rabid right-wingers, intent on bringing down a President who was elected and re-elected by the nation, politicians will inflict any filth on the public to achieve their goal; laws that need passing, problems that need tackling, and which go by the wayside. And a man who is more sinned against than sinning, trying to make his peace with his family and the world. That is the trick that has been worked this week by the White House, as it tries (by its own lights) to sharpen the focus a little, or, if you will, to spin the picture around.

At the beginning of the week, everything looked quite bleak: opinion was turning against the President, the White House seemed devoid of strategy, and a legal and political process was at work which seemed to have no end but the removal of the President. By the end of the week, Mr Clinton's opinion poll ratings were on the increase. Round One went to Kenneth Starr, by a long way. Round Two saw the Republicans step into the ring and release the Starr Report: the President was down on the canvas. In Round Three, they released the President's video testimony to the grand jury, and they lost. This is a bout that will go on and on, so it's far too early to proclaim any winners or losers, but that is news in itself. The President is off the ropes, and punching back.

In part, the Republicans may have over-reached themselves. The farrago over releasing the video seemed to some people a grudge too far, and it backfired. The row over the release turned itself into a partisan feud, and if there is one thing the American public doesn't like, it is party politics. The video contained yet more sexually graphic material, and many people thought that was enough: more was unnecessary. And in any case, predictions that the video would show a President who, like Charlie Chaplin playing Adolf Hitler, was climbing the curtains and chewing the carpets, proved unfounded. Though he looked more than shifty and often angry, this was recognisably the President of the United States, in control and in office.

IN PART, however, this was carefully plotted (if very lucky) spin. The White House had done a good job of setting up the video as another disaster for the President, says Tom Korologos, a veteran Republican strategist. And as it took up the battle, many of the themes which the White House has developed started to catch on and appear in headlines and poll results. People started to say: this is not an independent investigation, it is an ideological crusade. And while the Republicans portrayed themselves as the Untouchables, in pursuit of justice, the White House characterised them as zealots with a fatwa out for the President. The release of conversations with Monica Lewinsky that were taped by Linda Tripp - one of the least sympathetic characters in this bizarre cast - will make that an even more vivid image. "They're brilliant," says Mr Korologos.

The central idea was that while the White House is moderate, pragmatic, ready to talk, the Congress is led by hardliners who didn't want to know. "Do you have any indication whatsoever that Republicans are at all receptive to this notion of something short of impeachment or resignation?" Mike McCurry, White House press spokesman, was asked at the press briefing on Wednesday. "I think it would be accurate to say that there are some Republicans who would like to see this matter resolved in some fashion to spare the country further debilitating discussions," he said. "Not many of them are willing to say so publicly because they fly in the face of the jihad caucus of their own party, but that's the reality."

Jihad caucus? Now, where did that come from? "Your use of the phrase jihad caucus - do you think some people think they are engaged in a holy war against the President?" Mr McCurry was asked. "I don't know," he replied. "You'd have to ask them."

"But it was your phrase," the reporters shot back. "We have to ask you." And Mr McCurry, laconic as ever, his state department training shining through, responded: "I don't think it's necessarily inappropriate." Why don't you start ringing the Republicans, Mr McCurry was telling the press: see what they think. Are they happy with this? There is nothing the press likes more than a split.

This is not just an attempt to deflect and reshape perceptions in the febrile atmosphere of the White House briefing room. It is also an attempt to connect with electoral politics, and drive a wedge into the Republicans as they approach elections. To survive, Mr Clinton has to find the moderate voices in the Republican Party, and persuade them it is in their interests to compromise.

He is chiselling away at a rift: one wing of the Republican Party, the economic conservatives, is even running commercials against the religious right. There was unease about the way that the Southern-led moral majority seized control of the commanding heights of the Republican Party in the early 1990s, and it would not take much to stoke it up. The Democrats have also organised a grass-roots campaign to get voters to call Republican members of the judiciary committee and pressure them. Some are in areas where a few votes will count. Steve Chabot, for instance, is the Republican who represents Cincinnati, a city that voted solidly for Clinton. His seat is in Democrat sights.

The Republicans took Congress in a blitzkrieg offensive four years ago, the mid-term elections that threatened to wipe Mr Clinton off the face of the earth. But their very hegemony created tensions within the party. And Newt Gingrich, the man who led them to power, became something of a liability rather than an asset. So it was hardly surprising that we were given Mr Gingrich at every press conference last week, Gingrich the obstructor, Gingrich the zealot, Gingrich the sinister ringmaster. "They've tried to demonise Gingrich since the first day he took office," says Mr Korologos.

Henry Hyde, the chairman of the house judiciary committee, is a conservative but a more moderate, less ideological one than Mr Gingrich. And so Mr McCurry suggested that perhaps, nice and respected though he was, Mr Hyde was not quite in the loop over impeachment. "The chairman, Mr Hyde, has indicated these matters are above his pay grade, he's not making the calls on these matters," he said. "Presumably, the Speaker is. So I think it is fair to sort of say it looks like it's the Speaker who's calling the shots."

MR Gingrich has his own chequered moral past, divorcing his wife while she lay dying of cancer in a hospital, facing a Congressional reprimand for campaign financing irregularities and paying a fine. He is associated with a failure of strategy that helped to lose the Repub- licans the 1996 Presidential election, when the Congress and President failed to agree on the budget, and Congress forced a shutdown of government. It was during those dark nights, of course, that Mr Clinton made the acquaintance of a young employee called Monica Lewinsky. But it was also the occasion when Mr Gingrich proved that, smart though he is, his political sense of tactics is not always spot-on. Whatever the feelings of Democrats about Mr Clinton, they will have been pleased to see Mr Gingrich's name again.

Maybe last week was a turning point. As one respected Democrat puts it, Mr Clinton is at his finest when he is on the ropes. He takes the energy of the punch, absorbs it and swings back. But to some extent, this was just the return of politics as normal, in an abnormal season. The two parties traded punches over familiar issues, and points were scored. No one had an advantage of the kind bestowed by the Starr report. The White House delivered a sterling defence, and it shifted perceptions; but that is only part of the battle.

Things will swing back again, as surely as summer is turning to autumn in Washington. It seems certain that impeachment hearings will be decided upon next week by the judiciary committee, and that the House of Representatives will back that decision. Congress will break up and head for the campaign field, where Mr Clinton's crimes and misdemeanours will be used as ammunition. The President's fate and the more quotidian business of elections will fuse, at least temporarily.

After that, the issue will be on the table when Congress returns. What matters is how far the White House can convince its own supporters, the public and some of the opposition that it is not worth going to the ends of the earth to destroy the President - that it might be dangerous to the country, or even to their own self-interest. In the longer term, the President's fate is in the balance. But he lives to fight another day.

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