Clinton is debating to get back on track ON POLITICS

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

April 02, 1992|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

NEW YORK -- What former Gov. Jerry Brown has chidingly been calling Gov. Bill Clinton's "scandal-a-day" campaign has now become his "debate-a-day" campaign, in a roll of the dice that could determine the outcome of next Tuesday's critical New York primary.

Frustrated over the concentration of New York's tabloid newspapers on old and new allegations of "character" shortcomings aganist him , Clinton is working his way through a series of six or more daily or almost daily debates with Brown here.

His objective, according to campaign manager David Wilhelm, is twofold: to get the voters' focus back on the issues he wants to raise, and to have the voters take a good look at Brown as a serious candidate for the presidency. The strategy reflects confidence that if these two things happen, Clinton's message and his ability to articulate it, and deficiencies in Brown's message and the way he presents it, will put the Clinton campaign back on track.

Starting with Brown's upset victory over Clinton in the Connecticut primary and continuing after his one-sided success in the Vermont caucuses, Clinton has been bucking the clear perception that his campaign has stalled. A political version of the Chinese water torture -- another allegation dropping on him nearly every day -- has made public confidence in his honesty and integrity Clinton's real adversary as much as Jerry Brown is.

Yet another nationwide poll, by the New York Times and CBS News, has found that only 26 percent of Democrats surveyed said they thought Clinton "has more honesty and integrity than most people in public life," to 54 percent who said he doesn't.

Clinton's artful dissembling on the basically unimportant question of whether he ever tried marijuana was the latest self-inflicted wound -- countered in an equally artful manner by aides arguing that he always responded truthfully when asked a specific question. In other words, if you don't ask the right question, Clinton is not going to volunteer anything.

The debate-a-day strategy, designed to counter the newspaper tabloids' focus on such personal issues, was undercut by the Clinton campaign itself yesterday when Clinton was scheduled onto a tabloid of the air -- the Phil Donahue talk show. Not surprisingly, Donahue questioned Clinton at length about the allegations of Little Rock nightclub performer Gennifer Flowers that she had a 12-year affair with the governor.

No new revelations were produced as Clinton again denied the allegations, but the show was taped prior to a major Clinton foreign-policy speech and aired three hours after it, effectively switching the news media's focus once again. Why Clinton, complaining endlessly about being burned by newspaper tabloids, subjected himself to television tabloid tactics was a mystery.

The debate-a-day strategy against Brown isn't foolproof for Clinton, either, for that matter. It poses risk as well as offering opportunity. Brown on the attack against the status quo is, for the most part, categorical -- a clear bell ringing out. Clinton, a coalition builder, often strives for positions that will please various elements of a coalition, resulting in a less categorical signal to voters.

In a debate here the other night on problems of urban America, Brown pointedly toned down his responses, limiting his usual harangue against the corruption of the political process. In several exchanges, he offered crisper answers than Clinton did.

Only at the very end of the debate, when Brown did not have an opportunity to reply, did Clinton sharply criticize Brown's controversial proposal for flat income and value-added taxes, saying it would be a "disaster" for New York taxpayers. Brown could only shout over the moderator that Clinton was wrong and he would say why if he was given time to do so. He wasn't.

One reason Clinton now wants more debates is because he believes Brown is extremely vulnerable on the flat-tax issue, and no doubt it will get a longer -- and fairer -- airing in the Clinton-Brown debates to come before next Tuesday's primary. Now, if only Clinton's staff can keep him off the tabloid television shows in between debates.

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