Clinton's denial on TV draws mixed reaction Fidelity question still follows him

January 28, 1992|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Sun Staff Correspondent

MANCHESTER, N.H — MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Linda Shaw walked into the Munch Co. market on Elm Street to buy an apple and ignored the Star tabloids on display.

"Smut," she said disdainfully.

"It's totally ridiculous," she said of the Star story alleging that Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton had a 12-year affair with Gennifer Flowers. "If you like the guy, vote for him. If you don't, don't use that as an excuse."

Ms. Shaw applauded the statements Mr. Clinton and his wife made Sunday night in rebutting the allegations on CBS' "60 Minutes" program. And she is leaning toward voting for him.

But Mr. Clinton didn't win over everyone. In interviews, in calls to radio talk shows and in conversations at the corner store, New Hampshire voters made clear yesterday that they're troubled by what they have heard.

On one hand, they are angry with the news media for reporting such allegations. But even some who share this anger are turned off by Mr. Clinton's refusal to say whether he had ever had an affair with anyone.

With the New Hampshire primary just three weeks away, Mr. Clinton still must overcome doubts he had hoped to put to rest Sunday.

For the time being, at least, Mr. Clinton is leading in the polls of Democratic candidates in New Hampshire. Two new polls, released last night by WMUR-TV in New Hampshire and WBZ-TV in Boston, showed Mr. Clinton leading with 30 percent and 33 percent respectively.

Former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas was second in both polls, which were done following the "60 Minutes" appearance.

But the WBZ poll, which was done with the Boston Globe, underscores a credibility problem for Mr. Clinton: It showed that only 35 percent of voters believe he has told the truth. The polls also were done before voters here had a chance to assess Ms. Flowers' televised press conference yesterday.

Mr. Clinton, who is campaigning in the South, will have to contend with voters like Lisa Goduti when he returns later this week.

"I don't think he should have had to respond to it," Ms. Goduti, a bartender at the Corner Crossing restaurant in Hudson, said yesterday. "I don't think it's anybody's business if he cheats on his wife or not."

"But he didn't answer the questions, " Ms. Goduti said. "It just leaves a lot of questions about his integrity."

The bar's TV set was tuned to CNN, which was preparing to cover a news conference by Ms. Flowers, who has stuck to the story for which the Star paid her an undisclosed sum.

Voters who might have thought they'd heard the last of Ms. Flowers saw her at the start of the 6 p.m. news on WMUR-TV, New Hampshire's only network affiliate.

In Mr. Clinton's absence, his New Hampshire campaign staff launched a damage-control effort, sending the chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party and other supporters out to speak to voters.

And Clinton campaign advertisements continued to air -- sometimes during breaks in newscasts featuring the Flowers story.

His opponents, meanwhile, continued to attack him, but not on his personal life. "As I've said before, Governor Clinton's personal life is not a part of my campaign," said Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, campaigning in Hudson. "I want to talk about his record, the record of Arkansas, and I want that to be an issue here."

But New Hampshire voters weren't reluctant to express their views about the Flowers story.

Many called to discuss it on a midafternoon talk show on WGIR radio. "One thing that irritates me no end is the media sensationalism," complained a caller named Paul. "We know this man. But 49 other states only know Bill Clinton as a philanderer. I think it was a mistake for him to go on "60 Minutes."

Some women weren't as ready as their husbands to forgive Mr. Clinton for any past sins.

"My husband says . . . 'Who cares?' " said Lisa, another caller. "And I'm like, wait a minute here. To me, if the guy's supposed to be a leader of the country, he's supposed to represent a high standard."

The crowd around the horseshoe bar at the Common Crossing wanted reporters to focus on issues affecting New Hampshire, like the economy.

"I thought he was upfront and honest," said Don Ravenelle, a sales representative from Nashua, referring to Mr. Clinton's appearance on "60 Minutes." I would think as far as the media is concerned, at times they go a little bit too far," he said.

At City Hall in Manchester, WMUR-TV reporter Susan Masley interviewed eight people at the voter registration office. "All but one person who I interviewed said they did not think it should or would have any impact on their vote," she said.

But she didn't talk to Jim Sullivan of Rye, who hadn't fully formed an opinion of Mr. Clinton until he saw him on "60 Minutes."

"I question his sincerity and I question his integrity," Mr. Sullivan said.

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