Clinton's helping hand may be more in demand



WASHINGTON -- The surprisingly strong primary victory of House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski can be attributed to a number of things: name familiarity, his record as a prime deliverer of political pork, his strong ties with the Daley organization in Chicago, the advantage of being a 36-year House incumbent running in a five-man field.

Beyond these, however, was the very emphatic and highly visible helping hand extended to Rostenkowski by President Clinton, who bucked tradition and the warnings of the fainthearted by going to Chicago to campaign for him.

Although the White House took great pains to insist that the trip was non-political and ostensibly to peddle the president's proposals for health care, education and crime reforms, Clinton blew that cover with a rousing plea for voters to return Rosty. He specifically noted that his legislative initiatives had to go through the chairman's committee and his expert touch was needed.

Rostenkowski was believed to be in jeopardy not only because he is under investigation for alleged misuse of federal funds and perquisites but also because the 1990 redistricting put liberal Chicago lakefront wards into his otherwise heavily ethnic congressional district. But Rosty did well on the lakefront, according to his media consultant, David Axelrod, because voters there recognized his key role in advancing the Clinton agenda they support.

The chairman is not, by any means, out of the woods. He should win the general election in November easily, but Chicago insiders say they doubt he will escape indictment on charges of abusing his financial perks. If he is indicted, he will have to give up his chairmanship, but still could run for re-election.

His feat of winning about half the vote in a five-man field is of particular encouragement to the White House, where it will be argued with some merit that Clinton's rescue mission to Chicago demonstrated presidential coattails unusual in a mid-term election.

James Carville, the president's campaign guru, says Clinton always intended to campaign for supportive congressional Democrats whether Rostenkowski had won or lost. But he says more requests for help are likely to come in now in light of the Chicago outcome.

In all this, it seems much too early to suggest that the Whitewater affair plaguing the White House will not be a consideration in how extensively Clinton will campaign for other Democrats, and how eagerly his help will be sought. The case had not reached its current temperature at the time Clinton went to Chicago. Also, Rostenkowski's fate always had top billing in talk about the primary.

Among Democrats in Congress, the message from Rosty's survival is that the president of his party went out on a limb for a key supporter and ally when the chips were down. That fact should bolster Clinton's support in Congress as he presses for his legislative initiatives, and as fellow Democrats face re-election.

Making the case that a particular Democrat in Congress is critical to the Clinton agenda will not be as easy, however, regarding most other incumbents as it was in urging Rostenkowski's re-election. Perhaps no other single member of the House, possibly excepting Speaker Tom Foley, will be as important to Clinton's chances of future legislative success.

Clinton's attractiveness as a campaigner for congressional incumbents this fall doubtless will be affected by developments and revelations in the Whitewater affair. While comparisons with the Watergate scandal are ludicrous, the campaign effectiveness of a president under a political cloud was well-illustrated during the Watergate period.

Efforts by then-President Richard Nixon to help Republican candidates backfired and often were rejected by the would-be recipients. Sen. Bob Dole, running for re-election in Kansas at the time, was asked at one point whether he would like Nixon to come into the state to campaign for him. Dole quipped: "I'd settle for a flyover by Air Force One."

With the economy on the upswing, Clinton can be a strong spokesman for the re-election of supportive Democrats.

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