WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Returning to political combat, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered a fiery speech yesterday accusing Republicans of wanting to "turn back the clock" on a host of issues ranging from affirmative action to gun control.
"We are playing for big stakes in November," she told a cheering luncheon crowd of 1,500 Democratic women. "What I see is a clear and stark choice between two visions of America."
The Republican vision she outlined was dark indeed -- "negative and fearful, one that would have us not be a community, but a crowd."
By contrast, she said, President Clinton offers "optimism and hope and confidence that springs from our deepest beliefs that being part of this great nation gives each of us a chance to be more than we could alone."
Chastened by the defeat of her health care initiative and of the Democratic loss of Congress, Mrs. Clinton kept a low political profile in 1995. She has also been reeling from unflattering disclosures relating to the discovery of long-sought Whitewater documents as well as new evidence about her role in the firing of seven White House travel office employees.
But after touring the nation to promote her book about children "It Takes a Village," and making several highly publicized trips overseas, Mrs. Clinton has returned, energized, to the political arena.
And she has come back swinging.
Yesterday, she criticized conservatives who question the Department of Education's plan for standardizing school goals, saying that it was "a right-wing attack" indicative of a "know-nothing attitude."
Borrowing a page from Ross Perot, Mrs. Clinton also accused Republicans and conservative groups of plotting negative campaigns and dirty tricks.
"I predict that in the next months what will occur -- in desperation by those on the other side -- is a relentless attack of negative advertising," she said.
"It will be both filling the airwaves and below the surface of the radar screen, where there will be lots of those telephone operations we read about in the Republican primary, where people are called and basically given information that slanders opponents.
"We'll see a lot of the groups on the other side, like the NRA, working overtime," she added. "There will be a concerted effort both to provide misinformation about Democratic candidates, starting with the president, and to confuse people, because if they are able to confuse people and drive people away from the polls, they win."
The speech was highly partisan for a first lady, possessing a tone more often associated with vice presidents.
But Al Gore would not have been as welcome at yesterday's event, organized by a group known as EMILY'S List. The group was founded in 1984 to raise money for women candidates who described themselves in favor of abortion rights. EMILY is an acronym for Early Money Is Like Yeast ("because it makes the dough rise").
In 1994, the group expanded its mission with a California turn-out-the-vote effort designed to encourage liberal women to participate in politics by voting -- and not only for female candidates.
That effort is now being expanded to help Democrats across the nation, especially Mr. Clinton.
EMILY'S List president Ellen Malcolm opened the lunch with an attack on House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other Republicans, including those whom she identified as Mrs. Clinton's tormentors.
The list included New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato and White-water special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr.
"A couple of months ago, Republicans escalated their attacks on the first lady," she said. "And I got mad!"
To get even, she organized yesterday's "hug-up," which took in some $550,000 to be used to defeat Republican candidates. Ms. Malcolm and other feminist leaders are buoyed by polls that seem to indicate that the Democrats' long-cherished "gender gap" is finally taking shape.
In past years, it has been largely a fantasy, despite reams of news articles about it.
In 1984, the theory that women could give Democrats a majority was used on presidential nominee Walter Mondale to get him to choose a female running mate. He did, and he and Geraldine Ferraro lost 49 states to President Ronald Reagan. Exit polls make it clear that there was a gender gap -- but it was to the Republicans' benefit. Women preferred Mr. Reagan over Mr. Mondale by a slight margin, while men broke in large numbers for the Republican ticket.
This year, early polls show almost the opposite phenomenon.
The latest Gallup Poll, for instance, shows Mr. Clinton leading Republican Bob Dole by a margin of 51 to 44 among men, but by a whopping 59 to 37 among women.
"The gender gap is a chasm, really," said EMILY'S List executive director Mary Beth Cahill.
Independent pollster Andrew Kohut agreed, saying yesterday, "It's a bigger gap than it's ever been in the past."
Pub Date: 4/27/96