Clinton, after surviving setbacks, is looking sharp ON POLITICS

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover

May 18, 1992|By Jack Germond and Jules Witcover

ONTARIO, Calif. -- At the outset of a televised "town meeting" linking four California communities by satellite here the other night, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton explained why he was engaged in that kind of outreach exercise.

He was trying, he said, "to cut through some of the proscribed things in politics" and be in direct contact with voters in the hope doing so might "restore people's faith in politics."

The comment seemed a roundabout way of saying that the front-running Democratic presidential candidate sought to present himself to the voters without the impediment of personal baggage that has come along with his message as delivered by the news media.

If that was the attempt, it appeared to work very well. For one thing, not one of the callers whose images were conveyed to Clinton from Sacramento, Fresno and Hayward, nor any in the studio in Ontario, raised a single question about the "character issue."

The closest thing to voter dissatisfaction expressed was a lament from a woman in Hayward, not against Clinton but against all politicians. She said she was so fed up with their actions, starting with "the manhandling of Anita Hill" in last year's Senate hearings on the Supreme Court confirmation of Clarence Thomas, that she wondered whether it mattered whether she voted or not.

"It will only if you don't vote," Clinton shot back at once. "Elections are also wake-up calls," he told her. "They put you in the driver's seat again." Then, in more diplomatic terms, Clinton told her that the people only got what they voted for in the previous 12 years of the Reagan and Bush administrations.

In these and his other responses, on issues ranging from what to do with closed military bases to how to bring racial harmony out of the recent Rodney King case and resultant Los Angeles riots, Clinton was confident, crisp and specific. His performance was reminiscent of the candidate who wowed audiences before reports of personal misconduct threw his campaign off track and onto the defensive.

The format was a showcase for Clinton at his most effective -- even in slipping off one thorny question with a subtle display of his celebrated -- or infamous -- slickness. When a union man expressed discomfort that Clinton came from a right-to-work state, Clinton sidestepped and responded by listing his labor endorsements and observing that "the last two administrations have been anti-labor." The questioner seemed satisfied.

It has been more than a month now since any significant negative story has exploded in Clinton's face, and the respite has enabled him to regroup. It hasn't hurt, either, that he managed to survive and win in a string of primaries even as the negative reports bombarded him, and that he is running now without serious opposition.

Former Gov. Jerry Brown of California is persevering, hoping environmental support will give him a boost in tomorrow's Democratic primary in Oregon as he heads into the final round of primaries against Clinton here and in five other states on June 2. But the Clinton campaign claims to have 80 percent of the delegates he needs for the nomination already.

Clinton's only reference to Brown during the town meeting came when he told viewers they could contact him for answers to further questions by calling him via a toll-free 800 phone number. He jokingly thanked Brown for the idea and said as president he would keep the number so that the American people would continue to have access to him.

For all of his restored confidence, a cloud still hangs over Clinton as he struggles to get back into the political sunlight, and the cloud's name is Ross Perot. The Texas billionaire has been getting so much press and public attention that Clinton's work in putting his campaign on a more even keel has gone largely unreported.

While making an obvious effort to target his comments now against President Bush in an early start on the general-election campaign, Clinton jibed at Perot at one point for saying he was going off "for 60 days" to decide what his program would be.

Although several polls show Clinton running third behind Bush and Perot, that is not his immediate concern. Here in California he wants to avoid an embarrassing setback in Brown's home state at the tail end of the primary process.

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