CLEVELAND -- For Democrats gathered on the frozen shores of Lake Erie this weekend, the Whitewater affair could hardly have come at a worse time.
The semiannual meeting of national party leaders was intended to be an upbeat kickoff to the 1994 election campaign. Instead, the Democrats' pep rally is serving mainly as a focus for questions about the dangers that Whitewater may pose to their party's prospects in November and beyond.
One indication of that change: Party officials are now billing as the meeting's highlight a speech this afternoon by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman, David Wilhelm, in which the 1992 Clinton campaign manager is expected to launch a counterattack on behalf of the president.
In a further sign of the defensive mood here, "Don't Pillory Hillary" stickers began appearing on the lapels of DNC members yesterday.
The party line is that Whitewater amounts to little more than a Republican plot against President Clinton.
"We're not worried. Hillary's standing by her man, and we're standing by her man," Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White said to cheers from the partisan crowd last night. "We know we have nothing to hang our heads about.
"We have nothing to be ashamed about."
Publicly, Democratic leaders are united in expressing confidence that Whitewater will not harm their party's candidates in the election this fall of 34 senators, 36 governors and all 435 House members.
But privately, party strategists are careful to qualify their remarks with phrases such as "if Whitewater goes away" and "if it doesn't get worse."
All of this represents an abrupt shift in the political climate since the midterm election season began heating up a few weeks ago.
Until Whitewater began to dominate the news, Mr. Clinton and the Democrats had seemed to be in unexpectedly good political shape. Opinion polls showed that Americans viewed Democrats as better able than Republicans to solve the nation's biggest problems, including crime and the federal budget deficit. Mr. Clinton's job approval ratings had recovered from the lows of last summer and were approaching the highs he recorded shortly after taking office almost 14 months ago.
For the party in power at the White House, those numbers were particularly significant. That's because, historically, the president's party loses seats in Congress in midterm elections. And if a large number of Democrats are defeated in House and Senate races this year, it could make it all but impossible for Mr. Clinton to patch together a working majority on Capitol Hill for the remainder of his term.
"It is up to you to determine whether or not we continue with the politics of change, or whether we allow the other side to drag the country down into gridlock and the politics of negativism," Vice President Al Gore told the party leaders last night.
Lately, Mr. Clinton's poll numbers have started to slip, and the worry for Democrats is that the party's standing might fall, too, if the trend continues.
The most recent Gallup/CNN/USA Today Poll, conducted this week, showed Mr. Clinton's job rating at 50 percent, down from 58 percent in January. Among the most closely watched segment of the electorate -- people who call themselves independents, the group that often holds the balance of power in close elections -- the slippage was even more pronounced, dropping to 45 percent from 58 percent two months ago.
Another leading political indicator is also turning down for the Democrats. The number of Americans who think the nation is on the wrong track rose to 47 percent from 42 percent in January, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey.
As White House strategists struggle to get events back under control, the Whitewater affair is blotting out public attention to the president's agenda. That is making it much more difficult for Mr. Clinton to get the Democratic message out on everything from health care reform to the recovering economy.
This week, for example, Mr. Clinton announced a $13 billion plan to improve the nation's job-retraining system, with an emphasis on helping middle-class workers who lose their jobs. But news of that sweeping proposal was buried by coverage of his aides' scheduled testimony before a grand jury and the Democrats' refusal to agree to Whitewater hearings in Congress.
Democratic Chairman Wilhelm points out that last Friday should have been a banner day for his party: The unemployment rate fell, the index of leading economic indicators rose, and Republican members of Congress at a retreat in Annapolis failed to agree on an alternative to the Clinton health reform plan. Instead, notes Mr. Wilhelm, the next day's papers were consumed by the news that subpoenas had been served on top White House aides.
Among party leaders, Mr. Wilhelm said, "there's probably a certain level of frustration that [Whitewater] is taking the focus away from the things we are dedicated to working on."