CANDIDATE CLINTON RETURNS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Bill Clinton, with nearly two years left in his term, appears to have shifted his focus away from generating lofty initiatives and onto a more down-to-earth prize: electoral votes.

At the White House, signs that a political animal is on the premises are numerous: They are in Mr. Clinton's rhetoric, his body language, his guest list, and in a host of altered positions on core domestic policy issues, including the federal budget.

Mr. Clinton's loyalists, his adversaries and independent observers agree that this push into a re-election posture comes in response to the Republican takeover of Congress and the early activity of Republican presidential candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire.

"He started it right after the midterm elections," said presidential historian Bruce Buchanan. "His tax cuts, the so-called 'middle-class bill of rights,' all that was re-election oriented."

Clinton loyalists say he had no real choice: Control of Congress by an aggressive Republican Party has severely limited the president's ability to command majorities for his legislation.

"There's no harm done," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. "As the minority party [on Capitol Hill], we weren't going to get anything done, anyway. Besides, the president is very comfortable moving in and out of presidential and campaign roles. It's seamless to him."

At a news conference Friday, Mr. Clinton moved easily between two worlds, one minute arguing for less name-calling in national politics and the next pounding the lectern and scolding the Republicans as the party of the rich willing to "target children in order to pay for tax cuts for upper-income Americans."

He also lamented the early start of the presidential race while simultaneously launching into what he admitted with a chuckle will be his 1996 campaign speech.

Mr. Clinton has also begun, as presidential candidates often do, to campaign against "Washington" as though it were alien terrain instead of the capital that he and his fellow Democrats controlled for the first two years of his term.

He has also assembled a team of pollsters, media consultants and campaign advisers, expanding the political apparatus he brought with him to Washington after his successful 1992 campaign.

Democratic Party sources say this group, which recently has been frequenting the White House to map re-election strategy, includes 1992 veterans James Carville, Stanley Greenberg, Paul Begala and Frank Greer, along with Richard Morris, Geoffrey Garin -- both pollsters -- and media adviser Robert D. Squier.

Some Democrats, still smarting over the defeat in fall's midterm elections, are cheered that Mr. Clinton is responding aggressively. Other Democrats find it disquieting that the president, in reacting to the Republican challenge, appears to be tailoring his responses to the focus groups, polls and folk wisdom imparted to him by these political advisers.

Privately, some Democrats also fret that Mr. Clinton is sidestepping the kind of leadership responsibilities that have traditionally been those of a president.

When Mr. Clinton held a welfare summit in Washington five weeks ago, some of the participants were surprised when he conceded that his administration would not be sending a welfare reform proposal to Capitol Hill this year -- and that the working version of the bill would be the one produced by House Republicans.

But Mr. Clinton, who pledged in 1992 to "end welfare as we know it," has also issued vague threats that he would veto a welfare bill that he considered too harsh.

Republican Party chief Haley Barbour complains that Mr. Clinton seems to neither want to lead nor follow the GOP. "It's the perpetual campaign with him. He seems most comfortable when he's running for office."

Mr. Clinton has also been accused of waffling on affirmative action, an issue that has surged to the center of the current political debate.

After Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and other Republican presidential candidates called for an end to racial preferences last month -- and after it became evident that California, a key state for Mr. Clinton's re-election chances, was going to have a referendum on the issue next year -- Mr. Clinton ordered a review of all affirmative action programs in the government. "We shouldn't defend things we can't defend," he said.

Until very recently, Mr. Clinton's Justice Department, under civil rights chief Deval Patrick, has been aggressively seeking to expand opportunities for minorities under the umbrella of affirmative action, even going so far as to switch sides in a New Jersey case in the middle of the litigation.

"The president's Justice Department never saw an affirmative action case it couldn't defend," said conservative scholar Terry Eastland, a veteran of the Reagan administration Justice Department. "The only new factor is California politics."

Late last week the Justice Department intervened in an Illinois case on behalf of plaintiffs suing over a janitorial training program that excludes white males.

Mr. Buchanan, who teaches at the University of Texas, asserts that electoral-based decisions generally help presidential candidates, but he believes that too much of this kind of politicking may backfire on Mr. Clinton.

"My instinct is that it is not good for him," he said. "It reinforces the image that he's practicing a wetted-finger-to-the-wind brand of leadership."

The area in which election politics seems most evident in White House politics is Mr. Clinton's budget policies this year.

In 1992, he promised a middle-class tax cut at a time when he wanted to draw a distinction between himself and Democratic rival Paul E. Tsongas. Upon being elected, Mr. Clinton said the deficits were too big, and instead of cutting taxes he raised them on everyone but the working poor.

In addition, in his first two annual budget, Mr. Clinton reduced the projected annual budget deficits and lectured the nation about the need to curb its appetite for deficit spending.

But after the midterm election -- in which the GOP promised tax cuts -- Mr. Clinton unveiled a series of tax cuts of his own. And last month, Mr. Clinton sent to Congress a budget with a $200 billion deficit, which would have added that amount to the nation's $4.8 trillion debt.

Mr. Clinton and his top budget officials defended this budget and dared Republicans to produce ideas on how to trim it.

They have done so in a variety of areas, but Mr. Clinton and his allies have savaged every one of those proposals. They have done so with the use of organized, orchestrated "talking points" that are faxed around town to Democratic loyalists, a technique perfected by Mr. Carville and Mr. Begala during the 1992 campaign.

These denunciations culminated in the torpedoing -- with White House assistance -- of a popular balanced budget amendment by Senate Democrats who said they were preventing Republicans from "looting" Social Security.

One veteran Democratic pollster said that Mr. Clinton risks coming across as cynical on the balanced budget amendment because the budget he just sent to Capitol Hill has a higher projected deficit than the one he sent last year.

"The Senate Democrats fell back into that old saw, 'The Republicans will rape and pillage your Social Security account,' " added Greg Schneiders, another veteran Democratic consultant. "That's not going to work again. I think Bob Dole probably was closest to the truth when he said that the Republicans had lost the vote but gained an issue out of it."

Added Roger Stone, a GOP operative advising the presidential campaign of Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania: "You're going to have a shouting contest to see who can spin it the best. That contest is called the 1996 presidential campaign."

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