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The Comeback Kid Or Backlash Bill?


Washington Outlook

THE COMEBACK KID OR BACKLASH BILL?

With the Democrats' margin in the Senate too slender to protect Bill Clinton's agenda from Republican filibusters, the President needs every ally he can get. So it's hardly surprising that Clinton has been invited to Texas to stump for appointed Democratic Senator Bob Krueger, the underdog in a runoff to fill Treasury Secretary Lloyd M. Bentsen's old seat. Trouble is, it was GOP leaders, not Texas Democrats, who issued the invite. Republican Senator Phil Gramm even offered to pay his way--a commentary on the President's dismal standing in the Lone Star State.

In a recent Texas Poll, only 37% of those questioned rated the President's performance "good" or "excellent." And unfortunately for Clinton, his setbacks on Capitol Hill are being translated into trouble for Democratic office seekers. While polls show that the public approves of Clinton's message of change, voters don't like proposed tax hikes. In response, Democratic candidates are distancing themselves from the man who topped their ticket last fall.

'CLEAR MESSAGE.' The campaign strategies, in turn, are causing shudders in Congress, where Clinton's tax proposals, spending cuts, and long-term "investment" plans face crucial tests. "If he's losing elections, or perceived to be losing elections, he loses all his pump," worries a House Democratic aide. In Wisconsin, for example, Democrat Peter W. Barca eked out a narrow victory in a May 4 special election to fill the seat of Defense Secretary Les Aspin. To win, Barca flaunted his opposition to the President's proposed energy tax, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and higher taxes on Social Security benefits. "The people in the Democratic Party who have to face the voters are running from Clinton like scalded dogs," gloats Republican Party Chairman Haley Barbour. "It's a very clear message that the President's plans are unpopular."

Texas' May 1 special Senate election was an even clearer case. Republicans shared 58% of the vote in a free-for-all primary. Krueger--despite calculated opposition to Clinton's tax hikes and defense cuts--got just 29% of the total. The Shakespeare-prof-turned-pol now faces an uphill struggle in an expected June 5 runoff against Republican State Treasurer Kay Bailey Hutchison, who is eager to make the vote a referendum on Clinton. "This is going to be the first test of what people think of the Bill Clinton economic plan," she declares.

Of course, no local election is a national referendum, and Krueger has plenty of homegrown woes. He shared the ballot with Democratic Governor Ann W. Richards' ill-fated plan to shift revenues from rich school districts to poorer ones. And Krueger's erudition can make him seem, well, un-Texan. "Every time he quotes Shakespeare, I love it," says state GOP Chairman Fred Meyer. "I have a rule: If you don't quote Sam Houston or Harry Truman, don't quote anybody."

POPULIST THEMES. The Clintonites think Texas and Wisconsin are isolated cases. "From what we hear, the rest of the country is dying for him to come in and campaign," says Democratic National Committee Political Director Joan Baggett. And Democrats hope to learn from their early mistakes. In the Texas runoff, Krueger is sounding populist themes, attacking Hutchison as a "country club candidate" in thrall to Wall Street. He blasts Hutchison as "part of the forces of filibuster and not the forces of change" and emphasizes such popular Clinton initiatives as abortion rights, Head Start, and immunization.

White House operatives say they'll let candidates run away from Clinton if absolutely necessary. They have little choice. If there are more dismal showings in races such as Krueger's, the President could find the going tough indeed. EDITED BY STEPHEN H. WILDSTROM Richard S. Dunham


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