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Here we go again


Washington -- WHEN YOU glance at the tube and see Bill Clinton on "Larry King Live" doing an imitation of Marlon Brando, you can have three unnerving suspicions:

You've stumbled into a rerun of the 1992 campaign.

It's winter 1996 and you've awakened from a long coma.

Bill Clinton never stops running for the White House.

Guess No. 3 would be correct. You're sane, the calendar's not out of whack. But politicians are prematurely afflicting us with 1996 presidential lusts.

Never mind that there are 259 days to the New Hampshire primary. What happened to the World Series and Christmas?

We're assaulted by The Campaign That Never Ends.

The pols can't restrain their '96 itch. Bob Dole's taking political potshots at Hollywood's dirty movies. Newt Gingrich will stump New Hampshire. Ross Perot is holding a Dallas pajama party for all candidates.

No surprise then that Mr. Clinton, Energizer Bunny of campaigners, couldn't resist a 60-minute gabfest with Larry King on Monday night.

The president's Q-and-A performance sounded so much like a campaign pitch, he'll probably pop up on MTV or "Wheel of Fortune."

Mr. King, showing his gift for softball questions, elicited the shocking news that Mr. Clinton will have Al Gore as his '96 running mate.

"Then you two are running as a ticket? Oh, come on. Everybody announces it here," gushed Mr. King.

"I haven't asked him yet, but if he's willing, that's my intention," said Mr. Clinton looking at a bemused Mr. Gore.

Mr. King might have gotten a scoop if Mr. Gore had snapped, "Heck no, who wants to go down with the Titanic?"

That would have stunned fund-raising honchos at the Clinton-Gore '96 headquarters in a downtown Washington building.

Trigger-happy Republicans are gearing up, too. They greeted Mr. Clinton with CNN ads using 1992 film clips in which he bragged he'd balance the budget in five years. Blared the ad: "Three years later, Clinton has no plan."

Shown the ad, Mr. Clinton was genteel toward his GOP critics. Mr. Gore thought Newt Gingrich had White House '96 urges. And Mr. Clinton subtly jabbed Bob Dole's grandstand attack on Hollywood gore-and-sex sleaze.

"I agree with Dole about the mind-numbing violence," said Mr. Clinton. "I just don't want to see it politicized."

Judged by his intensity and fervor, Mr. Clinton was in mid-campaign mode. His adrenalin pumped highest defending his hot-and-cold Bosnia policy.

Mr. Clinton, arguing that Balkan deaths had been reduced from 130,000 to 3,000, replied, "That's still tragic but it hardly constitutes a colossal failure."

Mr. Gore, playing a veep's role as cheerleader, said soothingly no one should worry about U.S. troops going to Bosnia -- news to GIs being rushed to the area.

In his upbeat, Dr. Pangloss mood, Mr. Clinton even gave an upbeat spin to the closing of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. "It's flooded with people, skateboarding, Roller-blading," said Mr. Clinton.

He didn't mention the armed guy shot on the White House grounds.

Mr. Clinton only barged into controversy when he defended the Waco, Texas, shootout, tear-gas attack and fire.

"What happened at Waco is clear," said Mr. Clinton hotly. "There was a valid warrant. The cult members shot first. They killed the children, not the federal officers.

"There's a lot of historical revision going on to take attention off Oklahoma City."

But the president's concept of what happened at Waco is controversial -- more reason why Attorney General Janet Reno and top FBI agent at Waco, Larry Potts, should be grilled by Congress.

Mr. Clinton's energy and agility on the King show demonstrated again that his TV mastery makes him no pushover in 1996, despite the odds. His approval ratings in polls have risen over 50 percent, boosted by his stalwart performance after the Oklahoma bombing.

I'd say his chances of re-election are 50-50, but much depends on the '96 whim of another King show regular, Ross Perot.

Before going on TV, Mr. Clinton jogged with preacher pal Rev. Bill Hybels. In an odd scene, they sat in view of tourists on the White House's North Portico, chatting and praying.

I couldn't blame Mr. Clinton if his prayers included a petition, ". . . And please have a third party in 1996."

Democrats' election map shows Bill Clinton strongest in the Northeast states, with an even shot at California.

There's no chance of a comeback in the South. That means Mr. Clinton must win the Rust Belt: Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

He's in trouble without Ross Perot, Colin Powell or another third-party maverick siphoning off votes.

By the way, Mr. Clinton's imitation of Brando was passable -- a whispery, husky-voiced Marlon saying, "Liked bein' on your show, Larry, you gotta real future in this business."

Hey, it's '96 already. Bill's opening for bookings.

Get ready, Oprah, Phil and Geraldo.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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