Political soap opera in Chicago

Despite unexpected plot developments, Clinton retains a winning script, says Rupert Cornwell
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CHICAGO - Oh, for the best-laid plans of mice, men and the campaign commanders of great political parties. Until the early hours of Thursday morning, the Democratic convention here had been purring along with the faultless precision of a Royal wedding ceremony. Then, just as with the protagonists of such events in Britain - and not for the first time in the roller-coaster political career of Bill Clinton - the tabloids struck. The Star supermarket magazine, the publication which first brought the world the tale of Gennifer Flowers, unearthed the tale of Dick Morris and the prostitute Sherry Rowland, and the New York Post quickly followed. Within hours, a media hurricane was howling through Chicago.

Mr Morris, the President's crack political strategist, inventor of "triangulation" (of which more in a moment) and architect of the moderate centrist policies that have helped remake Mr Clinton's fortunes, has apparently been consorting with a prostitute whom he sought to impress by showing her drafts of major White House speeches, and allowing her to listen in to conversations with his boss.

For all their penchant for soap opera, the producers of this week's fairness, faith and family morality play in the United Center had not written the Morris debacle into the script, a chunk of red-meat scandal tossed out to 15,000 assembled journalists suffering from acute news deprivation. And least of all at the convention's scripted climax - the day of Mr Clinton's acceptance speech in which he would set out his plans and dreams for a second term. Now, whatever the President says, the heady scent of anticipated victory will be mixed with a whiff of hypocrisy and betrayal.

It was Dick Morris who pushed family values to the heart of the message that the Democrats, just like the Republicans a fortnight earlier in San Diego, had been pumping forth during the hour of prime time grudgingly allotted by the networks each night. And how exquisitely the Clintons have performed. By co-incidence, naturally, a reporter was ushered into an interview with Ms Clinton just as she was wrapping up a phone conversation with her husband "... and I love you too, honey."

Their daughter Chelsea, sweet sixteen personified, has been on stage front and centre: first in the convention box, then grinning her way from one celebrity reception to the next, then rushing to her father's arms as he stepped out of the helicopter that ferried him here after his hugely successful train trip through the Midwest. Not least, she was a theme of mother's touching speech on families - Bill present at Chelsea's birth, Chelsea having her tonsils out, Hillary watching her daughter doing her homework on a quiet White House evening.

The portrait has been drawn with skill, subtly underlining the generational difference with the President's Republican opponent Bob Dole, divorced and remarried, whose own daughter Robin is now 41. Now, if the Star and the New York Post are to be believed, the family values strategy and, indeed, the first drafts of Ms Clinton's speech were discussed by their instigator with a $200-an-hour hooker, who delivered her services to Mr Morris during midweek stays in Washington at the Jefferson Hotel, five blocks north of the White House. So much for trusted advisers, the Clinton campaign must be saying. And, its foes will add, so much for family values in the Clinton circle.

So what now? The smart money predicts this will be just an "Inside the Beltway" flap, its central figure a man very close to the President but one whose name, let alone face, is unknown to all but Washington political junkies. A couple of days and the affair will be over. After all, this school argues, Bill Clinton has survived worse allegations directly against himself; sleaze at the Clinton court has long since been factored into Americans' opinion of his presidency, and the Morris scandal will change no votes.

All of this may be true. Equally true, though, the infamous "character question" is back on the table. Judge a man by the friends he keeps: and Dick Morris is suspect not so much for reason of his cavortings at a Washington hotel, but for his readiness to work for Republicans and Democrats alike and his cynical opportunism - precisely the charge against Mr Clinton's style of governing. "Live by Morris, Die by Morris", jokes Mike Murphy, one of Mr Dole's advisers.

Ultimately, the key will be how the Republicans play the issue. This may become clearer as more details emerge about how the Star obtained its story, and why Ms Rowland chose to talk. Already, this week's scandal has some fearing 1996 will see the dirtiest campaign of modern times. Having stolen issues such as crime, welfare and family values from his opponents (largely on the advice of Mr Morris), the President has left Republicans little but "character" with which to assail him. Bob Dole insists he will stick to the high road. His lieutenants, however, will be pushing the media for all they are worth.

Publicly, Republicans cast their answer in terms of a changed White House strategy, arguing Mr Morris's departure will quickly have Mr Clinton showing his true liberal colours. That, though, is surely nonsense; for one thing, the original choice to head for the centre was made by Mr Clinton: Mr Morris merely perfected the tactics, notably of "triangulation", the art of tacking between Republican and Democrat positions, embracing neither completely. The rest of Mr Morris's team, moreover, is staying in place.

Most important, nobody, not even Harold Ickes, Mr Clinton's deputy chief of staff and liberal rival of Mr Morris for two decades, is going to throw away a winning hand. Old-fashioned Democrats may miss their jettisoned ideology. But they like victory even more. Mr Clinton's political life has been a procession of triumphs, disasters and miraculous recoveries. Yes, Mr Morris was instrumental in bringing about the most recent - the remaking of a President after the catastrophic mid-term elections of November 1994, but even without his chief courtier, Mr Clinton still looks a winner this November. The show will soon be back on script.