Clinton focuses on preventing primary fight Re-election effort moves president to middle, stymies his critics

November 05, 1995|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Jimmy Carter couldn't do it. Neither could Lyndon Johnson. Not even Franklin Roosevelt managed to escape a re-election challenge from inside the Democratic Party.

But as Bill Clinton heads into the '96 election, one year from this Tuesday, there are no signs of a serious threat to his renomination.

"He's like a cat," says Democratic strategist Will Marshall, who like many in the party has had a love-hate relationship with the president. "He's got nine lives, politically speaking."

The absence of a primary battle may say as much about the rocky shape of the Democratic Party as it does about Mr. Clinton. There are few, if any, figures with the national popularity, or nerve, to take on a sitting president.

Nor is there an overriding issue or cause, such as the antiwar movement of the '60s, to sustain a challenge. In the aftermath of the Republican takeover of Congress, the unifying factor for Democrats today is fear: the threat that the GOP might grab the White House and gain complete control of the federal government.

Still, in the view of those inside and outside the Clinton camp, the president deserves much of the credit for his political rebound.

The largely untold story of how Bill Clinton worked to avoid a primary challenge is, at its root, a tale of a consummate campaigner. For all his zigs and zags since taking office, he has kept a laser-like focus on one goal: re-election -- the ultimate measure of his success.

"Everyone is thinking election down to the munchkin level" inside the White House, one former administration aide commented. And no one is thinking or working harder than Mr. Clinton himself.

"He's more active in the campaign than any president ever before," boasts Terrence McAuliffe, the chief fund-raiser for Mr. Clinton, who is in the process of collecting more campaign money in a shorter period of time than any Democrat in history.

Attention to detail

No detail seems too small for Mr. Clinton's attention, whether it's dispatching a campaign aide to a key state or making sure his accomplishments are touted precisely the way he wants them in millions of fund-raising letters.

Since early last spring, Mr. Clinton has convened weekly campaign strategy sessions in his living quarters at the White House. Taking part is a small group of senior aides, including his main political adviser, Dick Morris, a political gun-for-hire from Mr. Clinton's Arkansas days who also has worked to elect a number of Republicans, including Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina.

Out of these sessions have come the president's efforts to steer himself into the nation's rightward-shifting mainstream. In the latest episode, a chat with columnist Ben Wattenberg, Mr. Clinton described his own welfare reform proposal as weak and said he regretted moving left during his first two years in office.

Like his earlier apology for having raised taxes too much, those comments have enraged some Democrats, especially congressional liberals who had gone along with Mr. Clinton, often at personal political cost. But in spite of their anger, his critics appear powerless to do anything about it.

"From Day One [of the Clinton presidency]," says Joan Baggett, who was Mr. Clinton's first White House political director, "we never lost our focus in terms of who were the groups that are going to get you back to the dance."

Some of Mr. Clinton's most controversial initiatives -- gays in the military, his ill-fated health care overhaul proposal -- were highly popular with important elements of the Democratic coalition, as was his speech last summer endorsing affirmative action.

Meantime, the Clinton forces were quietly paying attention to the unglamorous details of national politics. By the hundreds, Democrats were brought into the White House to be wined and dined and get their pictures taken with Mr. Clinton on their state's own, special "day" in Washington.

As Mr. Clinton stepped up his political travels this year, he was careful to set aside time at each stop for stroking local Democrats in private meetings.

He has also put special emphasis on development aid and disaster relief for California, and for two other political targets, Iowa and Florida. He has personally announced emergency heating fuel aid to New Hampshire.

According to Ron Parker, a spokesman for the Iowa Democratic Party, "it would be hopeless" for another Democrat to oppose Mr. Clinton in next February's caucuses in Iowa. Indeed, opinion polls show that Mr. Clinton is twice as popular inside the party as the last Democratic president was at this stage of his presidency. Better than two of every three Democrats (69 percent) approve of the job Mr. Clinton is doing, a new national survey by the Los Angeles Times found; by contrast, Democrats gave Mr. Carter an approval rating of only 34 percent in 1979.

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