Governor Clinton's revival strategy On Politics Today

JACK W. GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

February 17, 1992|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Manchester, N.H. -- WHATEVER THE fate of beleaguered Gov. Bill Clinton in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, he has staked his chances for recovery on one basic strategy: painting not only himself but also the voters as the victims of negative and diversionary issues.

Having spent valuable time refuting allegations of marital infidelity and draft-dodging, Mr. Clinton has pointedly sought to put the campaign focus back on his proposals for economic recovery -- while telling voters he is trying "to give the election back to you."

The treatment by the news media, especially the tabloid press, of the first allegations tempered public criticism of Mr. Clinton himself, campaign strategists say, and were not nearly as responsible for Mr. Clinton's slide in the polls as were the charges he had acted improperly to stay out of the draft during the Vietnam War.

The Clinton campaign thought it had a major issue with which to capitalize on the draft allegations when a top Clinton aide was told by ABC News interviewer Ted Koppel that the Pentagon was the source of the letter Mr. Clinton once wrote to a draft board officer explaining his efforts first to stay out of the draft, and then to make himself subject to it.

"This sent shock waves through the campaign," says Paul Begala, one of Mr. Clinton's strategists. Mr. Clinton talked to Mr. Koppel directly to get confirmation and then released the letter, blasting the Pentagon and conjuring up images of a return to the tactics of Watergate.

But when Mr. Koppel acknowledged that he had been misinformed about the source of the letter, Mr. Clinton found himself out on a limb. Thereafter he said only that he didn't know the source, but that it was suspicious.

When crisis first hit the Clinton campaign, the candidate brushed off the tabloid reports as old hat. But when they were picked up by the mainstream press, Mr. Clinton and his wife Hillary decided they would have to respond quickly and aggressively. Hence the decision to go on "60 Minutes."

When the draft charges first appeared, Mr. Clinton quickly denied them but the issue did not die. Democratic opponents Bob Kerrey and Tom Harkin fanned it at a time illness knocked Mr. Clinton off the campaign trail. Release of the letter caused the draft issue to explode anew, causing Mr. Clinton to plunge in the polls.

At this point, the wagons began to circle to figure out how to save Mr. Clinton's campaign here. Mickey Kantor, a veteran California operative and close Clinton friend, flew here from Los Angeles to chair strategy meetings. Twice daily for the last week, a dozen or more Clinton strategists and insiders around the country joined in conference-call brainstorming on what needed to be done to get the campaign back to the issues Mr. Clinton hoped to be judged on. As a first step, Mr. Clinton decided to appear on "Nightline" with Mr. Koppel, agreeing to have the interviewer read the full letter, but also having the opportunity to cast himself as a fighter, to try to refocus the campaign and tell voters that they too were being victimized by sleazy and diversionary matters.

A principal reason the charges aired against Mr. Clinton hurt him, his strategists concluded, was that as a new face he was not sufficiently well known here. To counter this problem, it was decided to buy TV time and have him answer questions, one night from a panel of voters identified as undecided, the next from telephone callers.

As an opener on the first night, Arkansas voters were shown and heard expansively touting Mr. Clinton as a leader they trusted and admired. Two prominent television producers taped and edited the material and rushed it to New Hampshire for airing that night.

One poll of voters here showed Mr. Clinton coming out of his tailspin after the first night, for whatever reason.

Mr. Kantor says the Clinton campaign is far ahead of any of the other contenders in organization in such approaching primary and caucus states as Colorado and Maryland and throughout the South. He also notes Mr. Clinton raised nearly $700,000 in Boston and New York in the midst of the campaign's big troubles.

"I have no Earthly idea what's going to happen," Mr. Kantor says. "But I'll tell you this. Nobody's going to run the Clintons out of the race."

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