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Senators monitor calls, keep eyes on re-election; Voter ire on impeachment could sway tight races


WASHINGTON -- With President Clinton's impeachment trial beginning tomorrow, voters are directing their attention toward his jurors. And no senators are monitoring their calls more closely than about a dozen who are likely to face a stiff challenge when they run for re-election next year.

"It could be dangerous," said Ann R. Beser, a Democratic campaign consultant. "It will be a factor. The question is, how big?"

The volume of calls to Senate offices has been heavier than usual, but has not reached the fever pitch of the days before the House vote to impeach the president in mid-December. Still, voters are registering their thoughts on Clinton by fax, telephone and letter -- and with increasing intensity.

Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, received more than 15,000 e-mail messages in the past week about the Clinton trial, a spokesman said. The heavy volume of electronic messages to Sen. James M. Jeffords, a Vermont Republican, caused his office e-mail system to crash several times. Both senators are up for re-election in 2000.

Message traffic is expected to accelerate as the trial's format becomes clearer.

Many senators say their callers tend to agree with their public sentiments, which congressional aides say results from the tendency of people to reach out to ideologically compatible lawmakers. Privately, some Capitol Hill staff members say that some offices are willing to interpret the numbers to support their boss' case.

"People have very strongly held opinions on both sides of the issue," said Dave Lackey, a spokesman for Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a moderate Republican from Maine whose term ends in January 2001. While she is popular at home, her state voted overwhelmingly for Clinton in 1996, and communications from constituents are running about 60 percent to 40 percent against removing Clinton from office, Lackey said.

As Senate leaders have publicly weighed a process that could lead to a quick dismissal of the charges, some voters who are outraged by Clinton's behavior have been prompted to speak out. Both Minnesota senators -- Rod Grams, a conservative first-term Republican who won his seat in 1994 with less than half the votes cast, and Paul Wellstone, a liberal Democrat with presidential aspirations -- say about 70 percent of their correspondents are demanding Clinton's ouster.

On average, individual Senate offices are reporting about 50 to 60 calls a day, which is more than is usually received on all but the most searing of issues.

Jesse Jacobs, a spokesman for Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, said his office has been receiving about 50 calls daily. Of those, about two-thirds backed censuring Clinton, while one-third advocated the president's removal or resignation. Calls to Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, were about evenly split.

Senators are walking a fine line on the trial, as many encourage constituents to offer their thoughts but simultaneously say they won't be influenced by pressure. All deny that election politics could play a role in their decisions.

"What we're seeing is that the constituents and the senator -- on their own -- are in pretty much the same place," said Mark Nevins, a spokesman for Lautenberg, whose term expires at the end of 2000. Lautenberg says Clinton should be censured but not removed from office.

Mikulski, who has remained silent about the president since his impeachment, was re-elected in November. Sarbanes' term ends in January 2001, and he could face an energetic challenge should he seek a fifth term next year. Sarbanes has been critical of the process the House used to impeach Clinton, but has not commented publicly on the Senate trial.

Sen. Charles S. Robb, a Virginia Democrat, is likely to face a strong challenge next year from former Gov. George F. Allen. Robb has been largely silent on the issue and would not even characterize the tenor of calls to his office.

Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican who wants to stage a full trial of Clinton, said calls are running 3-to-2 in favor of the president's ouster. Santorum won his seat in 1994 with 49 percent of the vote, and he could be confronted next year by a credible Democratic opponent such as Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell.

"He can compartmentalize those two things, the politics and the trial," Santorum spokesman Robert L. Traynham II said of his boss. "If he runs for re-election, he will set this aside and take politics out of it."

Many politicians worry about how the Clinton trial could reverberate during elections next year. In November, House Republicans suffered a net loss of five seats, while challengers upset GOP Sens. Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina and Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York. To varying degrees, the Clinton impeachment played a role in those races.

"There's enough uncertainty in Senate elections that they have to be concerned about this," said Gary Jacobson, a congressional scholar at the University of California at San Diego. "In this case, one's electoral interests shape one's constitutional conscience. It can be very subtle."

Given that polls show a rise in Clinton's approval ratings since his impeachment, vulnerable Senate Republicans may be eager to avoid a trial so they do not have to cast a terribly divisive vote, Jacobson said. But that prospect appeared unlikely yesterday.

"Senate Republicans have put themselves in a lose-lose position," said GOP political strategist Jim Dornan, an aide to Virginia Lt. Gov. John Hager. "If they go to a Senate trial and they drag things out, I think we'll see what happened in November all over again.

"If they get rid of it quickly, I think you'll have the conservative base up in arms," Dornan said.

Pub Date: 1/06/99

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