Character Issue Will Fade Away, Clinton Says

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the goal he has sought nearly his entire adult life within sight, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton said Tuesday he believes that the questions of character that have plagued his Democratic presidential campaign now will slowly fade away.

Only a few weeks ago, Clinton feared that his campaign was on the verge of collapse. "The bottom fell out" as twin charges of marital infidelity and improprieties in his dealings with the draft hit him in New Hampshire, he said in an interview with The Times.

"My message and my ideas and everything I had worked so hard on was just all blown away," he said. "It took two weeks of hard, clawing work" to begin re-establishing political credibility.

But the mood has begun to shift, he said. "The longer the campaign goes on, the more people kind of incorporate a more balanced picture of you," Clinton said.

Now, as he savors victories in Michigan and Illinois, Clinton said, "I am at peace with" the controversies about character.

"I've made some mistakes, and if the test is perfection, I can't pass, and the American people will have to get another President," he said. "But I think the test of personal character is not perfection, it is trying to face up to your problems, struggling to overcome them, trying to become a better person."

Relaxed and good-humored as he reflected on the dizzying path his campaign has followed over the last two months and the challenge that lies ahead, Clinton said the message of the campaign so far has been that voters want change and mistrust the political Establishment.

That fact could mean bad news for President Bush in the fall, but, Clinton conceded, it also has fueled the campaign of a rival, former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.

"Jerry Brown has always had a maddening combination of insight into changing times on the one hand and, on the other, being willing to say or do anything, no matter how destructive, in the moment," Clinton said.

"He's like a dog to the bone; somebody said he was our (Patrick J.) Buchanan and he probably is," Clinton said, comparing Brown to the Republican challenger. But Brown's style, "sort of slash and burn and worry about the truth later, eventually will wear thin on the American people," he predicted. "They want somebody who is in it for the long haul."

Brown's campaign--despite the fact that he trails badly in the race for convention delegates--is a problem for Clinton because Brown can compete for the role of Washington outsider and can challenge Clinton's claim to be the candidate of change.

More important, however, Clinton and his aides never expected to have to run seriously against Brown, believing that by this point in the campaign they would be running against Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey. More recently they have concentrated their efforts on eliminating former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas.

"We knew how to run the race with Tsongas," said Clinton's campaign manager, David Wilhelm. It was "one economic message against the other, and we have won that one decisively."

Clinton aides believe that Tsongas will continue to fight and, despite a shortage of funds, may be able to run a significant campaign in the next primary, Connecticut, a state that gives Tsongas geographical and demographic advantages.

But the bigger threat, they believe, will be Brown, who can thrive in New York's overheated media market, attracting coverage that will offset his limited resources for advertising.

The fact that Clinton beat Brown substantially in Michigan, where voter anger and disaffection probably runs higher than anywhere else in the country, indicates a limit to Brown's appeal, said Clinton's pollster, Stanley Greenberg. Nonetheless, Brown's candidacy "puts a burden on us to make our candidacy more compelling, to give more and more meaning to our campaign," he said.

In Clinton's eyes, the chief task will be to prevent Brown from grabbing the outsider mantle that would allow him to feed on voter mistrust of Washington.

Despite his extensive support from the party Establishment and friendships with Democratic insiders, Clinton insisted that he and Brown are both "in different ways, outsiders." Like Brown, Clinton said, he is a "non-Washington politician."

He and Brown are "two very different people," Clinton said. "What the American people are going to have to decide is which outsider can also govern in Washington, can get things done."

Perhaps the largest advantage Clinton takes into that fight--or into the general election if he wins the nomination--will be the ability he has demonstrated so far to forge a biracial coalition of blacks and working-class white voters last week in the South and Tuesday in the Midwest.

In his victory speech Tuesday night, Clinton stressed that coalition, telling cheering supporters crowded into the ornate lobby of the Palmer House hotel here that in Michigan last week he had traveled to Macomb County--the heart of "Reagan Democrat" white flight from Detroit--as well as to black churches in the city. In both places, he reminded them, he told audiences that he could "give them hope," but only if they were willing to "reach their hands" across racial lines.

Over the next few weeks, however, keeping that sort of coalition intact "is going to be a problem," Clinton said in the interview, noting the sharp racial polarization in New York.

But, he said, "I think there is a deeply human core to all these problems" the country faces and "a shared wound to the American psyche" that crosses racial lines.

"We are wasting people even more than we are wasting dollars in America," Clinton said. "I just have this feeling, this absolute conviction that American people at even below their thinking level are aching to be brought together across these racial divides.

"If I can't do it, I don't think I can win the race," he said. "More importantly, if I can't do it, I don't think I can govern this country."

As the reality of his victory began to set in Tuesday night, Clinton said: "I sat there and thought about all the people I had met." The campaign, he said, "is changing me as I learn more about America, as I see it face to face--the problems that people have."

"The happiness I feel is much more calm than I thought it would be. The stakes are so high."

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