Clinton rallying voters from afar Most campaign events in protester-free zones

October 30, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton may be the consummate campaigner -- wading into crowds, thriving on the adulation, lingering at the rope line and shaking every hand in sight.

But as he heads to a Baltimore church Sunday to help energize the Democrats' get-out-the-vote effort, Clinton will be making his first -- and most likely, only -- traditional rally-the-troops event of the general election season.

Since August, Clinton has avoided old-fashioned Democratic campaign rallies where all are welcome. Instead, he has confined his campaign activities to safe, protester-free zones and highlighted his patriotism and presidential stature through triumphant occasions such as the Wye summit and John Glenn's space launch.

Instead of heading to the heartland, he has railed against the Republican-led Congress at such White House events as Tuesday's Social Security discussion and Wednesday's news conference in the Rose Garden; at issue-oriented events such as two school-modernization forums in Silver Spring; and at a blitz of Democratic fund-raisers around the country.

Today, for instance, Clinton will travel to New York to raise money for Rep. Charles E. Schumer in his bid to unseat Republican Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato. Yesterday, Clinton piggybacked two fund-raisers onto his Florida trip to Cape Canaveral.

"The easiest thing is to keep him around the party faithful -- the people who will write the checks," says Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst.

Though he is not, of course, on any ballot, Clinton has much riding on this election. It is not clear how the scandal will affect the election outcome, if at all. But Tuesday's results will likely be read as a referendum on Clinton and on whether the voting public favors impeachment.

Some political strategists -- both Democratic and Republican -- suggest that the president has steered clear of public, open-air rallies out of fear that reminders of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, in the form of "Impeach" signs and hecklers, would be prominent.

Others say the news media's focus on the scandal is keeping Clinton away.

"Some candidates have been concerned about spending two days answering questions from reporters about why they're appearing with the president," said Mark Mellman, a Democratic strategist whose clients this year include Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Sen. Barbara Boxer of California.

But White House officials dismiss the notion that the scandal influenced Clinton's campaign strategy.

Craig T. Smith, the White House political director, said the administration studied midterm elections and found that "rallies don't work."

"They don't have impact on the race," Smith said, "and even can be more negative than positive."

Such rallies, which cost tens of thousands of dollars, generally drain cash from candidates, sometimes energize the opposition and put the president in a political, rather than presidential, context, Smith said.

Another senior White House official likened the rallies to Chinese food, saying a presidential appearance can sometimes motivate voters at the time of the visit, but "it doesn't stick."

While Clinton has kept a lower, more presidential profile, Hillary Rodham Clinton -- whose poll numbers have climbed in the wake of the Lewinsky scandal -- has picked up the slack, campaigning coast to coast and drawing enthusiastic crowds and money.

Hillary Clinton has not only appeared at rallies and fund-raisers, she has also recorded numerous radio and television ads for candidates as well as messages for automated telephone pitches.

In high demand

"The demand for her is at a record high," said the senior White House official. In Chicago, New York, Boston and San Francisco, in particular, the aide said, she is a bigger draw than any other political figure.

"She's extraordinarily popular, raises a lot of money and excitement, and motivates the [Democratic] base" of women, African-Americans, senior citizens and labor, Mellman said.

White House officials say that because the first lady "costs less to bring in" than the president, her appearances at rallies are worth the effort.

1994 campaign effort

Four years ago, coming off the health care reform debacle, Mrs. Clinton was not nearly as active on the midterm campaign trail. And with his own approval rating sagging below 50 percent -- and Democratic candidates keeping their distance -- the president pursued a similar strategy of appearing only at fund-raisers -- until the final week.

Buoyed by a series of foreign-policy successes in 1994, Clinton crisscrossed the country to try to rally a dispirited Democratic base. But to no avail, as evidenced by the ensuing "Republican Revolution" that gave the GOP control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

Historically, a president's party loses congressional seats in midterm elections.

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