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If The Comeback Kid Can Do It This Time...


Washington Outlook

IF THE COMEBACK KID CAN DO IT THIS TIME...

August was going to be President Clinton's month in the sun. He'd bask in the glow of a triumph on health-care reform. Then, warmed by good economic news, he'd catch some rays in Martha's Vineyard. Well, forget that. Clinton is delaying his beach vacation to attend to higher priorities: rescuing health reform--and his Presidency--from sinking in Washington's political swamp.

It's a huge task. Besides trying to overcome the stench of Whitewater and thwart GOP efforts to kill health reform, Clinton must convince Americans that the economy is healthy, streamline his disorganized White House, and prevent a Democratic bloodbath in the midterm elections. Republicans plan to parry his every move. "This is the best political environment for us I've ever seen," crows GOP National Chairman Haley Barbour.

ROLLING HEADS? Hoping to prove Barbour wrong, the Clintonites are in damage-control mode. The first objective: get Whitewater behind them. Encouraged that the congressional hearings were a big snooze, the White House figures the public will soon forget the issue. If the problem lingers, Presidential advisers admit they'll sacrifice the Treasury Dept. trio damaged most by the hearings--Deputy Secretary Roger C. Altman, General Counsel Jean E. Hanson, and Chief of Staff Joshua Steiner. "It's sad but they're gone," predicts one well-placed source.

But rolling heads won't make Whitewater disappear. Kenneth W. Starr, a Reagan Administration attorney on Aug. 5 was named by a GOP-dominated judicial panel to replace Whitewater independent counsel Robert B. Fiske Jr., and he may start the investigation from scratch. If so, Republicans could prolong the scandal and use it to bludgeon Clinton in '96.

For now, though, Whitewater is swamped by congressional debate on health care, which Clinton sees as his political salvation. He's banking on Democrats to pass a bill--any bill--that he can call a major victory. "A health-care win makes up for all other sins," says an Administration official. "Everything is riding on it." But Republicans smell weakness. Emboldened by ebbing public support for reform, the GOP believes that killing the Democratic plans could be a political plus, even if nothing passes Congress this year.

Republicans are further encouraged by signs that Clinton is not benefiting from the strong economy, despite his efforts to boast about the good news. White House officials complain that the media only emphasize troubling developments such as the falling dollar and rising interest rates.

To improve the White House PR operation, Clinton's new Chief of Staff, Leon E. Panetta, may replace Communications Director Mark Gearan and Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers. Panetta is planning other staff changes to make the White House more effective, particularly on Capitol Hill.

At the same time, Panetta is trying to prevent big losses in November. Easing out party Chairman David Wilhelm and bringing in former California Representative Tony Coelho as a senior adviser to the Democratic National Committee will help. Without that shakeup, the Administration had feared the GOP could pick up 25 House seats and four Senate seats, leaving the Democrats nominally in charge by a thin margin, but with the GOP in ideological control.

Republicans say that would be an ideal outcome: They would dictate the legislative agenda yet be able to campaign in '96 against the Democrats running Congress and the White House. For Clinton, the prospect is a nightmare. No wonder he's working so hard before his vacation. Otherwise, his steamy summer could presage a very cold winter.EDITED BY OWEN ULLMANN Richard S. Dunham


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