Political pros find little in testimony to worry them Impact on the public won't be known for days

September 22, 1998|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SUN NATIONAL STAFF DTC

WASHINGTON -- After advance billing that would do justice to an Academy Award winner, the Clinton videotape left the political equation essentially unaltered -- for the moment, at least.

The unprecedented spectacle of President Clinton's testifying to grand jury was enough to attract an extraordinary viewing audience. But political professionals in both parties seemed to agree that there was no revelation in four hours of testimony that could be called a smoking gun that House Republicans might use to reinforce their case for impeachment.

The political operatives also agreed that it will be several days before it is clear whether the videotape has moved public opinion toward or away from impeachment or the president's resignation.

One key clearly is the way the material is handled by the news media in general and the major television networks in particular -- that is, which excerpts they choose to show and how much of the videotape they play.

"The nightly news is going to do more to determine how it plays out," said Tom King, a Democratic consultant advising several congressional candidates.

Clinton appears confident

What is already clear is that there were no stunning surprises in the four hours of testimony. Clinton was assertive and self-confident at times, defensive and resentful at others.

Some Republicans argue that as more Americans see it, the testimony may have far more impact than the report from independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr that has put him in such obvious political peril.

"It's one thing to read it, another thing to see it," said Linda DiVall, a Republican poll-taker.

But others were less certain.

"It doesn't sound like any grand slam for the Republicans," said ++ James Lake, a veteran Republican strategist.

The White House, Lake suggested, may have been especially effective in creating an expectation that Clinton would be more abused by his questioners than proved to be the case.

Some Democrats contended, however, that there may be a reaction against the spectacle of prosecutors badgering a sitting president about sexual questions.

And that, in turn, they argue, could make Republicans on the Judiciary Committee more cautious about pushing their case.

"I think there could be a backlash," said Raymond Strother, a streetwise Democratic strategist. "There were times there when he looks like a pitiful figure."

Insiders in both parties questioned the political wisdom of House Republicans in touting the videotape as an explosive element in the case against the president.

"I can't understand the strategy of the Republicans," said Frank Greer, a Democratic media consultant. "It's just not that devastating."

A Republican who asked not to be named said: "It was stupid to ballyhoo this thing. The [Starr] report had already nailed Clinton, so there was nothing really new here."

Erosion in polls

The videotape was released at a time when several new opinion polls have shown some sudden erosion in the president's position -- a decline of several points last week among those who still profess approval of Clinton's performance in office.

But there are conflicting interpretations of how key constituencies are reacting.

Democrat Strother reported, for example, that three focus groups he conducted in Atlanta and Savannah, Ga., in the past few days have found a sharp gender division. Women, he said, though dismayed at the president's conduct, want to see the matter settled because, "They're afraid of the consequences" of impeachment or a resignation. "Men are a lot tougher on him," Strother said.

Republican DiVall, by contrast, said her research finds women with children "increasingly disenchanted" with Clinton, who has always enjoyed more support from women than from men. "They want him to have the decency to move on," she said.

Older voters leaving

DiVall also said she has seen a movement away from Clinton among older voters who also make up a key constituency for the Democrats.

And a Democratic consultant who preferred to remain anonymous agreed. "These seniors are the ones who watched the whole videotape, and they're already pretty down on him," he said.

There is also some evidence that Clinton's approval ratings are being slightly skewed by the extraordinary backing he is receiving from black Americans.

Polls are showing consistently that the president retains the support of more than 90 percent of African Americans. What this suggests is that Clinton's position is shakier than it may appear in states with relatively small black populations.

What is still far from clear is how the voters' attitude toward Clinton and the entire controversy is affecting the mid-term congressional elections. Democrat Strother said the scandal is not having any impact now on high-profile candidates running for governorships or the Senate. But that might not be the case with House races in which the candidates are less well known.

The one point on which professionals in both parties agree is that the crisis could discourage marginal Democratic voters from going to the polls. And no one is arguing that turnout will be encouraged by the spectacle of a president testifying before a grand jury.

Pub Date: 9/22/98

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