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Clinton can't start anew just by hitting the road ON POLITICS


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, driven by necessity, has been out on the campaign trail on a mission roughly the equivalent of trying to reclaim his political virginity. Fat chance.

The president may earn some dividends from his forays into Cleveland, Chicago and New York in the form of improved ratings in the opinion polls. But any president, even one in office only four months, has too much on the record to wipe his slate clean and begin anew.

That fact of political life was never more apparent than in the futile attempts by President George Bush in late 1991 and most of 1992 to persuade the voters that he finally was getting serious about the condition of the economy. There was simply too much history for that approach to sell.

It is not surprising that Clinton and his political advisers have been anxious to take him out on the road again; indeed, it is a wonder he has not returned to the bus tour format he used so successfully last year. But candidate Clinton was able to control the picture of himself he wanted to project and to keep the focus tightly on the issues -- principally the economy -- that worked to his benefit and kept Bush on the defensive.

But President Clinton doesn't have a similar opportunity. Although he can use his travels, as he did, to make his case for his economic package, he cannot escape issues he would just as well put aside for the moment -- most notably the crisis in Bosnia and his own controversial plan to reverse the ban on homosexuals in the military.

That inability to control the agenda was demonstrated in the starkest terms when the stories of his campaign-like appearances in Cleveland were obliged to compete for television news time with the "good film" of Sam Nunn and some of his fellow travelers on the Senate Armed Services Committee being briefed at a navy yard on how close the bunks are to one another on a submarine.

None of this suggests, of course, that Clinton shouldn't bother to get out beyond the Beltway and talk to those "real Americans" from whom he ostensibly derives his strength. Anyone who lives in Washington inevitably finds that most people elsewhere are far less than preoccupied with the minutiae of political life in the nation's capital.

At this particular time, the president also needs to demonstrate some ability to "move the numbers" in the opinion polls as a way of reminding his putative allies in the Democratic Party that there is some demand for action out there to solve the nation's problems.

Politicians are fundamentally ambivalent about poll ratings. On the one hand, they understand that the numbers measure only a moment in time and are subject to radical change overnight because people's opinions are less fixed than poll numbers might lead you to believe. But it is equally true that it is far easier for someone in the Senate or House to go along with a president who seems capable of enlisting popular support. That is why, for example, so many Democrats caved in to Ronald Reagan and Reaganomics shortly after he took office 12 years ago.

With that reality in mind, Clinton is trying to demonstrate he has not lost the skill so evident last year of talking directly to voters and, more to the point, persuading them to give him a chance. What the president and his political advisers must understand, however, is that there are limits on how much can be achieved.

The problem here for the new president is that he has taken the initiative on so many issues in such a short time he inevitably has caused obvious polarization in the electorate. There is at least a substantial minority of Americans frothing at the mouth over the issue of gays in the military. Clinton would be wasting his time pursuing those voters. His targets instead should be those who still believe, whatever they think of gays in the military, that the economic and health-care problems have to be addressed in a serious way and that Clinton is capable of doing just that.

A couple of brief excursions out of Washington won't convert those voters instantly. Many of them are already disappointed in his performance and skeptical. But the campaign-like appearances do allow Bill Clinton to present himself and his case for change in the best possible light even if he can't start all over again.

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