Clinton spends day out of limelight but on analysts' minds President has large stake in outcome of election and its effect on impeachment

Presidency

Election 1998 : Nation

November 04, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton stayed in the shadows yesterday, but much of the drama and suspense of yesterday's elections centered squarely on his fate.

While not on any ballot, Clinton was as much on the minds of election analysts -- if not voters -- as any of the candidates around the country. And he potentially had as much at stake.

Even though the public had expressed deep disinterest in the scandal that has threatened Clinton's presidency and evolved into an impeachment inquiry, the election results are likely to be read as a referendum on Clinton's future and directive to the House Judiciary Committee, which is to begin preliminary impeachment hearings next week.

What's more, unless the impeachment proceedings are aborted or replaced by a censure alternative soon, the newly elected House and the Senate will decide Clinton's fate.

In his only public remarks yesterday, Clinton tried to downplay the notion that the election was about him, saying it was instead a referendum "on all the hopes of the American people for the future and their assessment of the present condition, and how we get from here to a better tomorrow."

But a respectable showing by Democrats, which early returns were suggesting last night, could be read as a message that voters are not interested in impeachment and could weaken the hand of those pushing for the president's removal.

In exit polls by the Voter News Service, a small majority of voters said they approved of Clinton's job performance and wanted the congressional inquiry dropped. While two-thirds of the voters said they believed the Monica Lewinsky scandal had hurt Clinton's ability to lead, six in 10 voters said they disapproved of how Republicans have handled the issue.

Clinton watched the election results on television last night in the White House family theater with friends, Cabinet and senior staff members and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, home from a feverish campaign schedule. The president was expected to watch the returns through the night and call victorious Democrats around the country.

Earlier yesterday, the president, who had voted by absentee ballot in his homestate of Arkansas, stayed close to the White House, meeting with advisers, calling Democratic candidates and catching up on office work, his spokesman said.

Though he had much at stake in yesterday's outcome, the master campaigner did little traditional barnstorming this time around, as he had during previous elections.

But even in the midst of his personal and political troubles, Clinton engaged in a rigorous schedule of private fund-raisers for Democratic candidates around the country. And he pursued a "Rose Garden strategy," staging issue-oriented events at the White House that highlighted the Democratic agenda and his strengths, successes and stature as president.

Yesterday was no exception. Clinton began a closed meeting with his international economic team in the Oval Office with extended remarks before reporters and cameras, heralding the nation's economy even in the face of worldwide financial turmoil.

He was cautious in predicting the outcome of yesterday's election. "In large measure, it will depend upon who makes the effort to vote," Clinton said. "None of us know what is going to happen."

In the past few days, Clinton had acknowledged that large Republican gains in Congress would make his last two years in office difficult because much of his agenda would be thwarted.

But yesterday, he focused as much on the past as the future, noting that it was the sixth anniversary of his first election as president.

"It's been six very good years, very good years for our country," he said. "And as I tell everybody around here, even the bad days are good. It's an honor to serve. And my gratitude today is immense to the American people for giving me two chances to do this and for the good things that have happened in our country over the last six years."

With so much attention on Clinton's impact on the election, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart also tried to lower expectations yesterday, pointing out that throughout history, Democratic and Republican presidents suffered big losses in their parties in the sixth year of their presidencies.

Lockhart, too, dismissed the notion that the election results were a referendum on Clinton's presidency and the impeachment proceedings.

"If you go out and talk to the voters, you'll find that that's not how they look at things," Lockhart said. "It's the issues that they care about, that they're looking at in this race."

Pub Date: 11/04/98

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