Clinton campaigns with an un-Democratic focus on values

August 28, 1996|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

CHICAGO -- President Clinton is running a campaign quite different from what American voters have come to expect of a Democratic president seeking a second term.

The difference is a reflection of the times and, more to the point, of polling data White House strategists are studying every night. Mr. Clinton's advisers are particularly intrigued by recent findings that the percent of Americans who believe the country is ''headed in the right direction'' or ''on the right track'' has suddenly increased from 36 to 44 percent and now exceeds the number who believe the country is ''on the wrong track.''

That change apparently is a product of the president's emphasis on what politicians call ''values'' issues rather than on either significant spending or elaborate legislative proposals.

Some of the initiatives have been based simply on executive actions. That is the case, for example, with his announced plan to discourage teen-age smoking -- a scheme that ultimately will have to be approved by the courts but is clearly popular for the moment.

Others involve modest public spending and cooperation with the private sector, as is the case with his proposal to provide with industry help cellular telephones for every police patrol car in the nation.

In still other instances, the president has simply put himself on record endorsing an idea that appeals to voters concerned about their children, as when he supported the idea of uniforms for school children and curfews on youth.

Juxtaposed against the poll on the country's direction are other results showing that Republican nominee Bob Dole's principal campaign proposal -- for a 15 percent tax cut -- has begun to lose some steam with the electorate as it is examined more closely.

The Clinton strategy strikingly resembles the approach that cultural conservatives in the Republican Party have been urging on their own ticket. Their theory all along has been that ''family values'' are the first concern of voters, not economic fears.

The critical difference is that the religious right's priorities -- a ban on all abortions and limits on homosexual rights, for example -- are highly controversial. By contrast, it is hard to imagine who is in favor of encouraging youngsters to smoke.

Less government-oriented

The most significant characteristic of the Clinton initiatives may be that they are less government-oriented than, for instance, Senator Dole's plans for balancing the budget while reducing taxes. A mountain of polling data shows that voters don't trust any candidate to keep his promises on taxes.

The White House has used the week before the convention to choose a different topic every day for new emphasis. The strategy appears to be working. Although Mr. Dole realized a ''bounce'' from the Republican convention, the president now leads by about 12 percentage points in both published and private polls. The president had been 18 to 20 points ahead before Mr. Dole outlined his tax plan and named Jack Kemp as his running mate, then dropped to a 7-point lead just after the Republican convention at San Diego.

The failure of Senator Dole to sustain more of a gain from his convention has persuaded leading Democratic analysts that the president is probably home free in the November 5 general election. Increasingly the question has become whether he may win by a wide enough margin for the Democrats to recapture control of the House and even possibly the Senate.

Mr. Clinton himself is said to be focused on winning with more than 50 percent of the vote despite the presence of Ross Perot on the ballot, a goal that now appears within sight. He has always chafed at the Republican contention he lacked a mandate in his first term because he won with only 43 percent, to 38 for George Bush and 19 for Perot.

But if the president is to make his goal, he will do so without advancing the kind of Grand Plans that have been the foundation of Democratic campaigns in the past. This year the key word in both parties is ''values.''

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 8/28/96

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