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Clinton chides GOP foes; But President gives field of contenders an upbeat evaluation; First news conference; He defends his record and Gore; announces increased heating aid


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton dipped his toe into the race to succeed him yesterday, insisting that Republicans are running against his personal failings because they cannot successfully challenge his stewardship of the economy or his international peace efforts.

But Clinton joked that he, too, would have no choice but to make an issue of his personal conduct if he were running against himself. And in the first news conference of his final year in office, Clinton magnanimously suggested that all four major White House contenders are men of accomplishment, conviction and "pretty clear philosophies and records."

"This is not a bad thing for America, this choice they have got," Clinton said of his leading would-be successors, Democrats Al Gore and Bill Bradley and Republicans George W. Bush and John McCain. He later added: "I'm casting a little sunshine over [the election]. I keep trying to build these fellows up."

Though he is considered a masterly political operator, Clinton has tried to appear above the 2000 election fray. He has raised money for the Democratic Party and has offered advice and support to Vice President Gore. But so far, he has neither campaigned for a candidate nor commented extensively on the election.

That has not prevented the candidates from invoking his name. Yesterday, Gary L. Bauer, who dropped out of the Republican race this month, endorsed McCain as the party's best hope of ending the Clinton era.

In the Republican debate Tuesday, Bush complained that McCain's comparison of him with Clinton was "as low a blow as you can get in a Republican primary." Even Bradley has tried to link Gore with the character cloud looming over the Clinton administration.

During yesterday's hourlong news conference, which was dominated by political questions, Clinton defended his record. As he frequently does, he boasted of his oversight of the longest economic expansion in U.S. history, the lowest crime rate and welfare rolls in 30 years, peace efforts worldwide, and the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Sympathy for GOP

"I have a lot of sympathy for Governor Bush and Senator McCain," the president said wryly, looking relaxed and amiable as the media spotlight shifts away from his administration. "I mean, it's hard for them to figure out what to run on. They've got a tough job."

Reminded that both Republicans and Democrats have assailed his sexual misconduct and other scandals, Clinton joked, "If I were running, I'd do that."

He defended Gore against Bradley's attacks on his veracity, saying the vice president "was always brutally honest with me." When other members of his administration were tentative in the face of perilous decisions, Gore was emphatic, Clinton said. He said the vice president had pushed for military intervention in Kosovo, Bosnia and Haiti, and embraced a politically unpopular financial bailout for Mexico.

And Clinton predicted that the Monica Lewinsky scandal would not ultimately tarnish Gore.

"People are really smart," Clinton said. "It's pretty hard to convince them that they should hold anyone responsible for someone else's mistake, particularly a personal mistake."

The topics yesterday skittered from rising fuel prices to campaign finance reform to gun control to peace prospects for Northern Ireland and the Indian subcontinent.

The president announced the results of an analysis of gun-related violence in public housing, which concluded that public housing residents are more than twice as likely to be victims of gun violence as are members of society at large. The president then renewed his push for gun control legislation now stalled in Congress.

Home heating aid

Clinton also announced the release of $120 million in emergency home heating aid, targeted at Northeastern states reeling from the rising cost of heating oil. He said he would also ask Congress to fund $600 million more in heating aid and would implore the governors of those states to extend heating aid to more middle-income families with children.

But Clinton remained reluctant to authorize the release of fuel from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a step that could reduce the cost of gasoline. Instead, he said he would work diplomatically to persuade the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to increase petroleum output.

Also on the diplomatic front, Clinton promised to push hard for an early vote in Congress to allow China to join the World Trade Organization, calling Chinese membership in the international trade body "a huge national security issue." Many congressional Democrats fear such a vote and the backlash it could provoke from labor unions that oppose Chinese membership in the WTO.

But Clinton indicated that he would not shy away from the issue, even in an election year when enthusiastic union support will be vital for the Democrats' chances of regaining control of at least one house in Congress.

"I believe this agreement will change China from within, more than all the other economic openings of the last 20 years combined," Clinton said.

FEC nominee explained

Clinton also made a surprising admission, saying that Gore and Bradley were right to condemn the president's nominee to the Federal Election Commission. Clinton has nominated Bradley Smith, a Republican, to a vacant seat on the body that oversees U.S. election laws, even though Smith openly opposes restrictions on campaign contributions.

In recent days, Bradley has denounced Gore over the Smith nomination, saying it proved that the Clinton-Gore administration was not truly committed to reforming the election financing system. This week, even Gore criticized the nomination.

Clinton followed suit yesterday.

"He hates campaign finance reform, Bradley Smith does," Clinton said.

But, the president said, he had to nominate a Republican to fill a Republican slot on the commission. And, he said, he had to choose a nominee supported by Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott, or else risk having all his other nominations stymied in his last year in office.

"I don't like it, but I decided that I should not shut down the whole appointments process," Clinton said.

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