Clinton looks to N.H. for another comeback; Ambivalence greets president's attempt to refocus on policy


MANCHESTER, N.H. -- President Clinton returned yesterday to the state that once made him the "Comeback Kid," bathing in nostalgia and hoping for a resurrection of sorts to rebuild the stature of his tarnished presidency.

Seven years ago to the day, a young Arkansas governor revived his presidential campaign by surging to a second-place finish in the crucial New Hampshire primary, surviving allegations of marital infidelity and draft dodging.

Yesterday, on his first domestic trip since his impeachment trial to once again right his listing political ship, Clinton returned to the Granite State. A morning round-table discussion on health care, a lunch with old friends and a Democratic dinner showed a president fully engaged in his dual role as the nation's leading policy-maker and his party's fund-raiser-in-chief.

At the raucous Democratic fund-raiser last night, a reinvigorated Clinton could not resist recalling his now-famous statement from New Hampshire in 1992 that he would "stick with you until the last dog dies."

"This dog is limping but still going," Clinton said to a standing ovation.

Someone in the crowd shouted, "I love you, you're human."

Martha Freedman Clark, assistant Democratic leader of the state House of Representatives, said of Clinton: "He wants to reconnect with the people, and what better place to do it than Dover, N.H., on the anniversary of the primary? We want to give him a vote of confidence."

Yet for all his nostalgia and hopes for redemption, Clinton's reception throughout the state yesterday was decidedly ambivalent: No welcoming throngs lined the streets, though few protesters showed up, either.

Just outside the Pease International Trade Port, where Air Force One landed, a lone woman stood in the cold rain clutching a plastic-covered sign that read, "Clinton/Gore -- '92, '96, '99 -- With You."

A larger cluster of demonstra tors in Dover turned Clinton's self-proclaimed "Comeback Kid" label on its head, shouting, "Don't come back, kid." A headline stretched across the top of the famously conservative Manchester Union Leader, proclaiming, "Mr. President, You're A Disgrace!"

Some of the state's Democrats showed little tolerance for such venting. Bette Thibodeau of Seabrook acknowledged that the day's political events had been stacked with Clinton loyalists, and rightfully so, she said.

"I would hope they didn't invite any Republicans who have put him through all this," she said.

But even some of the party faithful acknowledged that anger was unavoidable in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

"I'm sure a lot of people believe that," Jim Splaine, a Democrat in the New Hampshire state legislature, said of the Union Leader's headline. "But he's our president, and he's all we've got for now. He's got a new lease on his presidency, and we all should say that's good."

Both of the Republican state representatives from Dover were invited to yesterday's health care discussion. One of them, Phyllis Woods, declined.

The other, Franklin Torr, had a scheduling conflict but said he had hoped to come to discuss Clinton's health care ideas, reflecting the pragmatism of many Republicans, inside and outside of Washington, in the wake of impeachment.

'Need to engage with him'

"He is still the president." Torr said of Clinton. "He will be for the next two years, and we need to engage with him in the issues."

It was that interest in policy that first attracted Clinton to New Hampshire, and it is what brought him back, said Paul Begala, a senior White House adviser.

Clinton's survival in 1992 and his survival of the Lewinsky scandal have been attributed to his political skill. But Begala insisted that each time, success boiled down to "two words: ideas matter."

"Even if you are attacked, ideas will sustain you," Begala said, "and even if you are perfect, bad ideas won't save you."

The lessons learned in the New Hampshire primaries have never been lost on Clinton and his team. Attracting just 26 percent of the vote, Clinton finished second in the 1992 primary, nine points behind the late Paul E. Tsongas, who represented Massachusetts in the Senate.

But the Arkansas governor had claimed a kind of victory for merely surviving three bruising weeks during which the nation met Gennifer Flowers, heard the first loud character questions and learned of draft-dodging accusations.

Hounded by the media, the Clinton team sought to capitalize on its candidate's personal charm by putting audiences between him and the press, a tactic that continues to this day. They held policy forums and hand-delivered videotapes to get Clinton's message out without a media filter. Begala estimated that Clinton personally met one of four New Hampshire voters that year.

"Any president faces far greater pressure than what I've been through," Clinton said at the time. "I think I showed how I'd handle it. People will say: 'OK, that guy's not going to roll over. He's not going to roll up in a ball.' "

That would become the theme of his presidency, as it lurched from one explosion to another, culminating in the first impeachment of an elected president.

Clinton advisers say New Hampshire residents looked beyond character flaws and focused on ideas. They hope the rest of the nation will take that cue.

Yesterday, the president was ready to reward that faith and turn to the next set of initiatives. Clinton helped raise $100,000 for New Hampshire Democrats last night at the Manchester Armory.

In Merrimack, he leaped from his motorcade to shake every hand in a cluster of students and adults outside the Country Gourmet Restaurant, where he had dined with old friends and supporters. "Thank you for taking the time," shouted a man in the crowd. "You're a good guy."

In the morning, the president's knack for policy detail was in full bloom as he moved effortlessly from calling for a $1,000 tax credit for long-term health care costs to proposing changes to help the disabled return to the work force.

'Health care delayed'

A panel of residents included a paralyzed former ski jumper, a mother of four who struggled for years to pay for the care of her father with Alzheimer's disease, and a small businesswoman and single mother who cannot afford health insurance for herself or her employees. It presented ample opportunity for a famously empathetic president to feel his citizens' pain.

"It's like justice: Sometimes health care delayed is health care denied," Clinton said.

Some of his aims seem contradictory. He acknowledged, for instance, that his "Patients' Bill of Rights" and his proposed Medicare coverage for prescription drugs would raise costs and make it harder for small businesses to provide health care coverage, at least in the short run.

Yet he also rued the rise in the number of uninsured and called for tax breaks to help small businesses provide health insurance. Small-business lobbyists insist that any benefit from a tax credit would be more than offset by rising health care costs spurred by Clinton's policy demands.

But Democrats, hungry for substantive debate after more than a year of scandal, were not asking those questions.

"He's making a valiant attempt to address the real issues," said Mark Hiller, a Democrat invited to the health care forum.

Pub Date: 2/19/99

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