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It Doesn't Look Like A Cakewalk For Clinton


News: Analysis & Commentary: THE PRESIDENCY: ELECTION '96

IT DOESN'T LOOK LIKE A CAKEWALK FOR CLINTON

As Dole solidifies his support, the President may be vulnerable

For weeks, White House pols were cackling with delight at the spectacle of Republican candidates campaigning with all the dignity of The Gong Show contestants. President Clinton, they figured, could only benefit. But with Bob Dole's eight-state primary slam dunk on Mar. 5, the smirks vanished. Though the President holds a big lead in the polls over likely nominee Dole--and the Kansan's party is deeply divided on critical issues--Clinton's political advisers foresee a tough reelection duel this fall.

Given the pummeling Dole has taken from his GOP rivals (page 36), the conventional Beltway wisdom is that Clinton will be a prohibitive favorite for another term. Dole strikes even his Republican backers as a plodding campaigner with other sizable negatives working against him. The GOP's reform agenda is stalled in Congress, and he is often accused of having no agenda of his own. The economy, meanwhile, is in its fifth year of expansion, three of them under Clinton, with few forecasters expecting a recession this year.

NIGHTMARES AHEAD. Forget conventional wisdom. In reality, Clinton is far from a shoo-in. "There are a lot of nightmares ahead," admits a senior White House official. A Feb. 23-25 Gallup Poll of 1,002 adults showed the President beating Dole 56% to 40%, but other surveys spotlight a chronic Clinton weakness: Voters continue to have grave doubts about his leadership. A Feb. 22-29 Harris Poll of 1,005 adults found that the President's negative rating has been rising steadily, to 53%, from 48% in November. Says Harris CEO Humphrey Taylor: "No President with a negative rating just before an election has ever been reelected."

The Republicans think they know why Clinton lags in voter esteem. "The character issue is his biggest problem," says Republican moral crusader William J. Bennett. "He's guilty of political infidelity--making promises and then breaking them." And the GOP is planning to drive that point home from now until Election Day. The Republican National Committee has a vault full of videotapes showing Clinton flip-flopping on issues from balancing the budget to reforming welfare to cutting middle-class taxes. Armed with a $60 million war chest, the RNC will offset Dole's campaign cash shortage with an anti-Clinton advertising blitz.

Thanks to some serendipitous timing, the Republicans may get help from a new book that reveals embarrassing details about Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton's Arkansas business deals. The splashy Mar. 15 release of Blood Sport: The President and His Adversaries, by Pulitzer Prize winner James B. Stewart, will give new punch to Hill Republicans' long-running probe into the Whitewater affair. More ominous for the White House, Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr is tightening the legal noose around many of the Clintons' former associates.

Whitewater matters because it seems to confirm voters' sense that Clinton lacks moral fiber. By contrast, the 72-year-old Dole may lack energy and vision, but stature he's got in spades. "One reason you vote for President is that you see him as your father," says Michigan pollster Ed Sarpolus. "Clinton is not seen as the total person you want your son to be."

When trouble looms, Presidents fall back on taking credit for a strong economy. But with growth slowing and worker anxiety surging, Clinton can't crow too much this year. Experts suggest that economic insecurity is one reason for the recent dip in the President's approval rating. Pollster Stanley B. Greenberg, a top adviser to Hill Democrats, warns that Clinton could have trouble wooing back workers under 50 who don't have a college education. Clinton did well with this group in 1992, but they voted Republican in 1994. Now, fewer than 10% of them think Democrats understand their economic concerns, Greenberg says.

LIST OF DOUBTS. The electoral map may work against Clinton, too. Sunbelt states with the fastest growth--such as Texas and Florida--are polling as Republican. Of the 270 electoral votes needed to win, Clinton has 97 comfortably in his corner vs. 130 for Dole, according to the latest estimate by Cook & Co., nonpartisan political analysts. Even if the GOP concedes California's 54 electoral votes, Clinton must pull an inside straight in the industrial heartland. He won these states in '92, but his top aides are worried about losing Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan.

Foreign policy woes are another potential Clinton pitfall. In recent weeks, the President has had to contend with crises in Cuba and Israel and with renewed Irish Republican Army bombings. What's more, Clinton's deployment of troops to Bosnia could yet turn bloody. And Dole could capitalize on any overseas crisis by reminding voters of his military experience.

Quite a list of doubts for Clinton & Co. to grapple with. Clinton is the odds-on favorite for now. And were the election to hinge on his issues--devotion to education, the environment, and protecting seniors--he likely would win in November. But there's far more to it than that. That's why Clinton's aides are taking Dole a lot more seriously than the capital pundits are.By Susan B. Garland, with Stan Crock, in Washington


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