Clinton keeps Democratic rivals guessing: Is he hurt or not?

February 03, 1992|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Sun Staff Correspondent

DERRY, N.H. -- The Democratic presidential campaign here has been bent all out of shape by the controversy over the personal life of Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas.

By most objective measures, nothing has changed in the 10 days since Gennifer Flowers surfaced in a supermarket tabloid. Although he experienced a brief dip, Mr. Clinton continues to lead opinion polls of voter preference in the New Hampshire primary Feb. 18. The front-runner continues to attract respectable and attentive audiences, such as the 250 people who crowded into the banquet room of the Promise to Keep restaurant here on a bitter cold Friday night.

Nor has there been any visible sign of movement on the part of the two rivals considered the long-term threats to Mr. Clinton's primacy, Sens. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Tom Harkin of Iowa. Former Sen.Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts continues to run second but still carries the burden of being considered a regional candidate.

The campaign has been so skewed, nonetheless, that Democratic leaders here and elsewhere wonder whether results of the primary will tell them anything about what to expect later in the Democratic contest or in the general election campaign against President Bush.

If Mr. Clinton proves the polls accurate and wins, is it evidence that he is indeed a viable candidate for the future? Or does it mean only that he benefited from backlash against the attacks on him? If he loses, does it mean that the winner demonstrated genuine strength -- or simply capitalized on a unique opportunity?

There is anecdotal evidence that Mr. Clinton has suffered some damage. At Friday's meeting here, several Democrats made a point of telling reporters that their presence didn't necessarily mean assent. Sheila Donilon, a legal secretary, said, for example, that she had attended "because I was planning to vote for him and I wanted to see him. But I don't think I can vote for him now. I don't think he's telling the truth."

Another ambivalent Democrat, who asked that his name not be used, said: "I came here because I think the guy's had a bad time and I like him. But he can't win with this thing on his back. Bush will crucify him."

Mr. Clinton's rivals, meanwhile, found themselves stymied in trying to capture the voters' attention. For a full week they were unable to persuade either the news media or voters to focus on their attempts to define the differences between themselves and the Arkansas governor. Instead, the central question was whether Mr. Clinton had suffered serious political damage as a result of the episode and, if so, whether it was irreversible.

The frustration reached a point late in the week at which Mr. Clinton's opponents themselves began trying to exploit the controversy. Mr. Kerrey taxed Mr. Clinton for being "insensitive" in a response on the Flowers tapes to her assertion that Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York might "have some Mafioso major connections." According to the tapes, which Mr. Clinton did not question on this point, Mr. Clinton replied that Mr. Cuomo "acts like one" and was a "mean son of a bitch."

Then Mr. Kerrey took umbrage at a suggestion on the tapes that a divorced candidate would not face similar political questions about his personal life. "I might lose the nomination to Bob Kerrey," he is heard saying in another unchallenged passage, "because he's . . . got all the Gary Hart-Hollywood money and because he's single, looks like a movie star, won the Medal of Honor. And since he's single, nobody cares who he's screwing."

"I reject the pious notion that one is either perfect or divorced," Mr. Kerrey said.

Mr. Clinton was also targeted by one of Mr. Harkin's principal supporters here, former Sen. John Durkin, who introduced the Iowa Democrat to an audience with thrusts at his competitors, including this statement: "I don't care much about Bill Clinton's infidelity in his domestic life, but I do care about his infidelity to the environment in Arkansas, his infidelity to the working people, his infidelity to the middle class."

By week's end, however, Mr. Clinton's opponents had abandoned that approach, apparently in reaction to evidence that voters were angry about what they considered piling on the front-runner. When former Gov.Edmung G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. of California raised the issue at the end of a debate Friday night, Mr. Kerrey chastised him.

Despite the appearance that Mr. Clinton had regained his footing, however, New Hampshire Democrats were awash in speculation about an alternative to the present field.

The Draft Cuomo movement opened a campaign office, and if you dialed 1-800-WRITEIN, the telephone was answered by a Democrat named Barbara Liss -- last encountered two weeks earlier at a rally for Bill Clinton.

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