WASHINGTON -- Inside the beltway, the investigations of President Clinton are like a purple elephant in a phone booth -- too big to be ignored.
But in the early stages of the 1998 congressional election campaign, candidates and strategists for both parties are finding voters have little interest in the subject. "It's amazing to me," said Tom King, a veteran Democratic consultant. "They're sick of it. They don't want to hear it."
The reaction against the long-running investigations of Mr. Clinton's fund raising and personal conduct is pronounced enough so that most Democrats are able to ignore the issue. Asked what he advises his Democratic clients to say if pressed on the president's problems, strategist Tad Devine says, "Basically, nothing is really the accurate answer. We move on to more substantive issues like education."
Given the lack of interest reflected in one opinion poll after another, there is an obvious question about the wisdom of the strategy Speaker Newt Gingrich has adopted of attacking Mr. Clinton on ethics in harsh language.
Political professionals on both sides agree Mr. Gingrich's strategy may help energize the Republicans' most conservative core voters. And they also agree that his approach may gain much greater resonance if special prosecutor Kenneth Starr produces either indictments, a tough report or both.
In the meantime, however, the Republican speaker is obviously taking a risk of alienating the political center by appearing to be driven solely by partisan motives.
"The problem," says poll-taker Mark Mellman, "is that voters will say they care more about partisan advantage than they do about the things I care about."
So far, the Democratic candidates have been temporizing, neither supporting the president nor turning away from him in any obvious way. But many of them are uneasy about what may come out later, during the general election campaign this fall.
"They're not distancing themselves," says Democratic consultant Ray Strother, "but you can't really defend the president."
Peter Hart, a poll-taker who conducts opinion surveys for the Wall Street Journal, puts it this way: "Democrats don't want to tie themselves to the Clinton mast at this point because they don't know what's ahead."
Some Democrats are frankly wary. One veteran campaign operative said, "This administration is going to sink and I don't want my clients standing on the deck when it happens."
Others say it depends on whether Mr. Clinton is able to continue to win voters' approval for his job performance even if he gets low marks for his personal conduct. "As long as he is able to maintain that separation," said Mr. Devine, "other Democrats can keep it separate."
The factor that dominates the campaign, experts agree, is the remarkable health of the economy. Americans are so upbeat now, the polls demonstrate, that voters are resistant to anything that might appear likely to rock the boat. They are interested in what the Congress and White House might do about some key issues -- education, tax cuts, the future of Social Security and the flaws in managed care health insurance plans, most notably -- but not in radical change that might depress the economy.
The context is one that suggests incumbents should be in a strong position in the November election. The conventional wisdom is that the Republicans will hold and perhaps add one or two seats to their majority in the Senate but have a closer call in the House.
At this point, the Democrats need an ll seat gain to win control of the House, a result that would defy the usual pattern of the party out of power in the White House gaining at the midpoint of a second term. But there are enough potentially vulnerable Republican seats so that a Democratic upset is not totally unrealistic although highly unlikely.
The consensus in both parties is that turnout is likely to be low, which is one reason Mr. Gingrich's attempt to rally the conservative base makes political sense. The fear among the Democrats is that some late development in the investigations of the president will discourage their core supporters. And they know that, generally, Republicans frequently turn out in larger numbers than Democrats in any off-year election.
At this early stage, nonetheless, the problems of the president are not even a factor in the campaign, however pressing they may seem to those inside the beltway.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 5/20/98