Clinton hopes to shift focus to his history

July 14, 1992|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Democrats from Bill Clinton on down are trying to make over his besmirched image, taking advantage of the convention spotlight to emphasize his humble beginnings in Hope, Ark.

In his only campaign appearance yesterday, Mr. Clinton noted he "grew up not in the best of circumstances."

"My mother was widowed before I was born, my family was poor when I was little. I was able to work my way through college and law school, and I know what it's like not to have enough money to get along on," he told an audience at a Manhattan social service center.

Mr. Clinton's life story was drowned out early in the campaign by allegations of marital infidelity and draft-dodging. People still have doubts.

A new poll by the New York Times reveals that even though most people claim their vote won't be affected by questions about his character, 41 percent believe such questions will influence other voters and cost him the election.

Republicans will attempt to exploit voter doubts about Mr. Clinton with direct attacks and subtle allusions, such as Vice President Dan Quayle's speeches about "family values."

But Clinton aides say the time is right for Americans to take a second look at him and what they feel is his appealing background. Convention activities are geared to accomplishing this, particularly on Thursday night when Mr. Clinton makes a nationally televised nomination acceptance speech.

In anticipation of this, Mr. Clinton is maintaining a light schedule of public appearances while he works on the address. His visit yesterday to the Henry Street Settlement, a social service center founded in 1893, gave him an opportunity to illustrate his concerns about social problems and talk about his own Arkansas roots.

After touring the center, he fielded questions from a racially mixed audience gathered for a "community meeting." He promised an economic growth program that would create 1 million new jobs a year, health care legislation that would expand coverage and control costs, more money for education and for community-run homeless programs.

Mr. Clinton seemed in high spirits after jogging through Central Park earlier in the day. "I'm happy with everything about the convention so far," he said.

Today he's scheduled to address a women's group and continue working on an acceptance speech he said will "reach out to the American people to tell who I am."

For now, Mr. Clinton's running mate is doing much of the talking about who the Democratic candidate is.

On at least three occasions Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. has talked about things he says people don't know about Mr. Clinton: that his "father was killed three months before he was born, that he was dirt poor, that he worked his way through college, could have been a success in any field but chose to go back to Arkansas."

In retelling the story, Mr. Gore sometimes changes the details and embellishes. While Mr. Clinton's immediate family was not affluent, they weren't sharecroppers, either. His mother was a nurse and his grandparents, who helped raise him, ran a small grocery store in Hope.

As part of the effort to defuse what is called the character issue, Mr. Clinton and other Democrats are trying to shift the focus to his record and platform.

"Frankly I don't care what you men do on your off-hours," outspoken Texas Gov. Ann Richards, convention chairwoman, said Sunday on CBS. "What I care about is who can run government. And I am in a serious, serious dilemma in Texas with a president that hasn't a clue what to do."

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