Muting GOP's thunder Similarities: President Clinton's State of the Union address offered his Republican opponents little room for attack. Indeed, the president sounded close to his chief GOP rival, Sen. Bob Dole.; STATE OF THE UNION


WASHINGTON -- If last night's oratorical duel between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole was really a preview of the 1996 general election, maybe they should call off the campaign.

To a striking extent, Mr. Clinton's shrewdly crafted speech could have been delivered by Mr. Dole, the current favorite to win the Republican nomination, or several other GOP presidential contenders, for that matter.

Offering his opponents little running room, Mr. Clinton admitted that government can't do everything, called for families to stay together, challenged Hollywood to clean up its act, proposed tough new laws to curb crime and illegal immigration, and showed off his new drug czar, a highly decorated four-star general.

Mr. Dole, who appeared extremely stiff -- and, by comparison, old, -- in presenting the GOP response to the president, tried mightily to knock down the impression that Mr. Clinton shares his party's values.

In a measure of Republican frustration at the Democratic president's penchant for stealing their themes, Mr. Dole vowed that his party would challenge Mr. Clinton "again and again to walk the talk he talks so well."

And in sharply partisan tones, he accused Mr. Clinton of masquerading as something he is not. "While the president's words speak of change, his deeds are a contradiction," said the Senate majority leader, describing Mr. Clinton as "the rearguard of the welfare state" and "the chief obstacle to a balanced budget."

By tradition, presidents are expected to rise above partisanship on such occasions, and Mr. Clinton blunted his criticism of the Republican Congress by stressing a theme of unity.

But election-year tension was clearly evident inside the House chamber last night.

It could be seen in Mr. Clinton's introduction of his wife, Hillary, currently under fire from a special counsel investigating the couple's finances.

zTC The first lady, who could be a liability for her husband in the fall campaign, gazed defiantly down from the gallery, while he looked back lovingly.

Mr. Clinton also managed to take the edge off of a key passage in Mr. Dole's speech -- indeed, a central theme of the senator's presidential campaign -- by praising his potential foe's World War Two record.

Mr. Dole, a wounded veteran whose military heroism contrasts with Mr. Clinton's avoidance of service during Vietnam, praised the sacrifices made by U.S. soldiers in foreign wars, as did the president.

In trying to stake out common ground with the ruling party on Capitol Hill, Mr. Clinton signaled the Republican lite flavor of his speech at the top.

He hailed the new business growth of the last three years, the progress he said the country had made in "restoring our fundamental values" and the decline in the welfare and food stamp rolls since he came to office.

Then, the man who came to Washington hoping to crown the New Deal with a new federal entitlement -- guaranteed health care for all -- declared that "the era of big government is over." Actually, he said it twice, to make sure everyone caught it.

Throughout his speech, Mr. Clinton echoed the Republican call for self-reliance, for shifting power from Washington to state and local governments and to religious and charitable organizations. He demanded tough new anti-crime laws, called for more choice in education and challenged schools to teach "character education" and provide uniforms for students, if that would curb violence.

Stealing a page from the Dole campaign book, he also leveled a broadside at the entertainment industry, calling on media moguls to create movies, music and TV shows that their own children could enjoy. He took a step beyond Mr. Dole, again urging Congress to require TV set manufacturers to install "V chips" that would allow parents to block programming deemed unsuitable for children, a provision Mr. Dole opposes.

White House aides had said that Mr. Clinton's speech would provide a "competing vision" for the one that Republicans have been putting forward. Chief of staff Leon E. Panetta said Mr. Clinton's vision "obviously contrasts" with the "extreme values that the Congress is holding these days."

But the glum faces of Democratic liberals seated in the House chamber told another story. At one point, the scowling face of Jesse L. Jackson -- whose son is a Democratic congressman from Illinois -- filled the screen, suggesting he did not love the president's nimble adoption of conservative themes.

To be sure, the president did flash several of the highest political cards he holds -- setting himself up as a defender of Medicare and Medicaid, the environment, and the working poor.

He also put forward a number of initiatives -- for job training and high-tech schools, expanded student aid and a tax credit for children -- that have almost no possibility of gaining passage in the Republican controlled Congress, but which many Republicans could support if put forward, say, by Mr. Dole.

Left unspoken, meantime, were the negative themes that are all but certain to form a central part of the president's re-election message. Strategists in both parties are predicting a nasty campaign, so in that sense last night was only a partial preview of coming attractions.

"It's bound to be a negative campaign because everything's on the line. The Republicans' majority status is on the line. The Democrats' franchise is on the line," says David Hill, a Republican pollster in Texas. "In the end, they'll dig in and fight with a ferocity they didn't know they possessed."

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