STRATHAM, N.H. -- Returning to the place where he had proclaimed himself "the comeback kid," President Clinton defended his economic program yesterday and tried to shore up its eroding support on Capitol Hill by appealing directly to everyday Americans.
"I need you to raise your voices," the president said yesterday in a weekly radio address broadcast nationally after he arrived here. "Ask Congress to turn down the special interests and to preserve this program that asks fair contributions from everyone."
Traveling later to the small New Hampshire Technical College to deliver the first commencement address of his presidency, Mr. Clinton accused Democratic senators of protecting wealthy special interests and buckling under to "the big oil lobby."
His sharp remarks were aimed at Democratics who have bolted party ranks and challenged Mr. Clinton's budget and tax plans.
In returning to New Hampshire for the first time since his election, the president selected the location of one of his most triumphant days of campaigning in 1992.
"I'm proud to come back to the state that 15 months ago made me 'the comeback kid,' " Mr. Clinton said. He also chose a setting that he and his staff hoped would show the great chasm that they say exists between what Washington insiders care about and what preoccupies ordinary Americans.
White House strategists had hoped that the past two weeks would be a time when the president, squeezed by an uncooperative Congress and a surly press back in Washington, would regain his stride by taking his show on the road, where it played so well in '92.
He began in Cleveland, went to Chicago, New York, small-town New Mexico, Southern California and wound up in New England.
The crowds, by and large, have been friendly. The visual images have been attractive and upbeat. The president, after a slow start in Cleveland, where he babbled a bit in a downtown mall, has been cheerful and forceful while cogently making the case for his economic package.
And yet, this period has been a public relations disaster for the White House. It was marred by a $200 haircut by a Hollywood hairdresser brought to the president's plane at Los Angeles International Airport. The next day, it was further tarnished by the firing of the entire White House travel office amid allegations that the White House was trying to steer business to Arkansas cronies of the president.
Worst has been the open rebellion by Senate Democrats, who have proposed an alternative tax proposal that threatens to unravel the president's entire budget process.
Most in jeopardy is the president's energy tax proposal. Sen. David L. Boren, an Oklahoma Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, has proposed an alternative plan that would kill the energy tax, delay raising taxes on the rich and cap entitlement programs, such as Social Security benefits and Medicare.
"These things are all linked together," said John White, a former Democratic national chairman who notes that once the White House press corps, drive-time disc jockeys and late-night comedians make fun of a president, his serious enemies in politics will not be far behind.
Another Democrat who worked in Mr. Clinton's 1992 campaign, said that Mr. Clinton loves campaigning and formulating policy but that he hasn't learned to sit down and negotiate with Congress.
This has been a surprise even to some of the president's top staffers because, as governor of Arkansas, Mr. Clinton negotiated all the time. As it turns out, in those "negotiations," Mr. Clinton simply dictated all the terms to state legislators.
"These members of Congress, particularly the senators, are a lot more arrogant, a lot more demanding and a lot tougher," said the former campaign official. "He's trying to push people around whose districts or states he didn't carry, and they're not buying it."
Everywhere he's gone in his latest road trip, Mr. Clinton has argued that his economic program, which combines spending cuts with new taxes, is the nation's best hope to recharge the economy.
"It's simply wrong for a powerful interest to try and opt out of this program by asking the elderly and the working poor to contribute more so they can contribute less," the president said in a thinly veiled slap at Mr. Boren and the oil industry. "I regret that otherwise good and responsible legislators would even consider this proposal, but I will fight it."
Those remarks came in the president's radio address yesterday, and he made the same case here to the 176 graduates.
Fifteen months ago, Mr. Clinton was in an even more precarious spot. His throat hoarse and his temperature raging from a bronchial infection, he fled into the technical school to avoid reporters who wanted to ask him about stories breaking all around him: his draft record, Gennifer Flowers' allegations that she had been Mr. Clinton's lover, New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo's rumored intention to enter the race.
But in the sanctuary of the school cafeteria, Mr. Clinton gamely fielded dozens of questions whose topics ranged from his policy on Japanese trade to environmental protection, student loans and violent crime -- all the things that pertained to the quality of the students' lives.
Afterward, Mr. Clinton emerged to face a barrage of press questions. But first, he chided his interrogators, asking them if they had even heard the questions asked inside.
This dichotomy between what average Americans are interested in, on the one hand, and, on the other, what the Washington insiders want to dwell on still exists, in part.
On the way to the school, the president's motorcade passed a sign in the window of a barbershop outside Stratham that read, "Mr. President, our haircuts are $12."
Even among out-and-out fans, there was just no escaping it. "Your $200 haircut," said one fan, Margaret Fanny of Durham. "I love it!"
The woman appeared sincere. The president forced a smile.