DENVER -- When President Clinton passed through Colorado the other day mining for votes and campaign money, he appropriately wore brown cowboy boots, albeit with a business suit.
An element of his 1992 presidential victory was his ability to carry Western states like Colorado. Three years later, issues like grazing rights and Clinton's continued support of gun control, as well as general coolness toward his performance in office, make winning the West in 1996 a dicier proposition for him.
A recent survey by Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli gives the president little comfort. It found that his disapproval rating had fallen from 49 percent to 41. But the telephone poll of 500 voters indicated that only 41 percent expressed approval of him as president and 69 percent said they would consider voting for an independent.
Democratic Gov. Roy Romer, talking to reporters, noted Mr. Clinton's lower disapproval rate and offered cautiously that the president "can win here." He said Colorado is a "conservative state" but the Republicans have gone too far and the political pendulum "needs to swing back into a more rational position."
Governor Romer said a generally low-key speech the president made here at a retirement and nursing home in defense of Medicare and Medicaid would appeal to Colorado voters' "sense of elemental justice." Mr. Clinton urged Americans to be "a community, not a crowd." They should take collective responsibility for the nation's elderly, he said, and not continue to mortgage the future of its children with budget-busting deficits and interest payments on the national debt.
It was an appropriate speech for delivery at a home for the aged. That night, though, when a crowd of big contributors showed up for a re-election campaign fund-raiser, they probably expected something more partisan than a reprise of that speech. But that was essentially what they got.
Instead of the usual red-meat Republican-bashing of the sort fat-cat Democrats look for when they shell out for such events, they got basically the same Bill Clinton lecture on the difference between a community and a crowd.
Mr. Clinton did charge that Republican health-care changes could deny 300,000 seniors access to nursing homes and deprive a million others of in-home care. In these and other warnings about the Republicans, however, he acknowledged that changes had to be made, but "in the right way."
About as close as the president got to an old-fashioned partisan harangue was his familiar recitation of how Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush had quadrupled the federal deficit in the 12 years before he entered the White House, and how the Republicans now are out to undercut Medicare and Medicaid to pay for tax cuts for the rich.
But Mr. Clinton notably avoided any direct mention of the Republican many Democrats love to hate, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose name can be guaranteed to get Democratic blood boiling and voices screeching.
One reason for this treatment of the opposition seems to be that the president isn't entirely against what the Republicans want to do; he just wants to do less of it, and take longer to do it. He agrees there should be a tax cut, for example, but proposes a smaller one, and he would take two years longer to balance the budget than the Republicans propose.
Giving 'em heck
Mr. Clinton's challenge to be re-elected is often compared to President Harry Truman's in 1948, when Truman ran against what he called "the do-nothing Congress" and promised to "give 'em hell." President Clinton seems to be running against "the do-too-much Congress" and settling for giving 'em heck.
It is, to be sure, still early in the 1996 presidential campaign season. Mr. Clinton is diligently attempting to demonstrate that the best combination the country can hope for in Washington now may be having a Democratic president to temper the excesses of the Gingrich revolution. If it turns out he can't do business with the GOP legislative leaders in the current waning session, there will be ample time next year for Republican-bashing in earnest.
Until then, deep-pockets Democrats who buy tickets for Clinton fund-raisers may have to be content with dissertations rather than full-throated battle cries. But the primary purpose of such dinners, after all, is to raise money, not blood pressures. The Denver affair reportedly added $600,000 to the Clinton campaign war chest, which isn't bad for one night's lecture on communities and crowds.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.