Loss of House seat in Ky. is an alarm bell for Clinton

ON POLITICS

May 26, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- For most Democratic strategists, the defeat in that special House election in Kentucky was a confirmation of something they have come increasingly to suspect over the last few weeks -- that President Clinton may be heavy baggage to carry in the 1994 midterm elections.

"It's flat not working out there," said a veteran consultant who asked to remain anonymous. "He's wearing thin."

That opinion has been spreading among Democrats long before Republican Ron Lewis won the Kentucky seat by casting Democrat Joe Prather as a Clinton ally.

Although Rep. Vic Fazio, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, called the defeat "a failure tactics, not message," many Democratic professionals privately seem to agree with Lewis that the Kentucky result "was a referendum on Bill Clinton."

Thus, the operative question is how far Democratic candidates can go in separating themselves from the president in a campaign in which they are already spooked by being incumbents facing a restive electorate.

Their success could determine whether the Republicans win the seven seats they need to capture control of the Senate and make the kind of gain -- 20 or more seats -- that would make the House hostile ground for Clinton in the next two years. The stakes are, in short, enormous.

For many strategists, the answer seems to be for candidates to define themselves so forcefully that they may not be tied to Clinton. "You have to show independence," said one consultant advising Democrats in several parts of the country. "You have to show bipartisan cooperation."

Not all Democrats are equally unsettled. Frank Greer, a media consultant with long ties to Clinton, suggested, for example, that party candidates should be selective on issues, feeling free to disagree with administration policy on issues of special concern to their constituents -- Haitian immigration in Florida, let's say -- while identifying themselves with it on the positive side on

others.

"Democrats should be running very strongly in favor of dealing with the health care crisis," he said.

The payoff, Greer said, could come in October if a health care reform plan is passed in September and Democrats "can talk about breaking gridlock -- I think that's a very positive issue."

Other Democratic operatives find it harder to find ways to profit politi

cally from being identified with Clinton. One leading poll-taker said, for instance, that his research indicates Clinton has been "entirely too accessible" and has forfeited the mystique of the presidency to whatever extent it still exists.

"Those town hall meetings are allowing him to be asked bad, tough questions," he said. "That much accessibility is allowing people to see all the warts and foibles."

There are also clear differences in the reaction to Clinton in different parts of the country.

Democrats are finding, for example, that the most extreme hostility to Southerner Clinton comes from nominally Democratic white voters in the South.

"It's positively vitriolic," a Democratic campaign manager said, "and it's a cultural thing."

Voters in the region, he said, are inclined to see Clinton's policies on such things as gays in the military as "cultural elitism" and his health care plan "as just more government."

More specifically, this means that Democrats are particularly concerned about such high-visibility campaigns as those for both governor and a Senate seat in Texas and David Boren's Senate seat in Oklahoma -- the kind of losses that would reinforce the image of a weak president just as his campaign for re-election will be starting.

Even the Democrats most uneasy about identification with Clinton are quick to point out, however, that the election is still more than five months away and that the context can be altered dramatically by the time voters begin paying close attention in September and October.

An acknowledged success on health care could make many Americans forget -- temporarily, at least -- about Whitewater, Paula Jones and Clinton's preference in underwear.

At the moment, nonetheless, Democrats worried about their own political survival are trying to find ways to keep some distance from Bill Clinton. The returns in Kentucky tell them he can be a tar baby.

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