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Weighty Issues Preoccupy Clinton : Democrats: In these quiet days of the campaign, he talks about his pride in losing 12 pounds. But he can’t find the right voter message.

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

This much can be gleaned about Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton from four quiescent campaign days: He has lost 12 pounds, about which he is distinctly proud. And his battle with the bulge is the highlight of the week, about which he is distinctly frustrated.

If this part of the campaign were a television show, some media consultant would call it “Growing Pains.”

It is a campaign interregnum much like gawky adolescence--distinctly uncomfortable, sometimes embarrassing. And after the stage has passed, it can be of absolutely no import or it can scar you for life.

In most campaigns, as in Clinton’s, the late spring transition between the frenetic primary season and the more formalized general election means less meeting the people, more fund raising behind closed doors.

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It also means a decidedly rocky message. As Clinton experiments with what to emphasize and what to subordinate to strike a chord with November voters, themes have come and gone with regularity.

Monday night, for example, he showed up at the Democrats’ traditional party on the Saline County Courthouse lawn, at which every candidate for every office stepped up to the microphone and said a few words.

Clinton, no stranger here, delivered a well-received speech whose ending line was:

“It’s your country! Take it back!”

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If that sounds familiar, it is because that line has been uttered for months now by the other Democratic candidate for President, former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.

The presumptive nominee himself does not acknowledge any discomfort with the state of his message. But this weekend, he did offer some criticisms that were illuminating--especially for a man generally accepted to be the best speaker in the presidential race.

“One of my problems in this race for President is I’m a terrible sound-bite politician,” he told supporters. “I don’t know how to say things that are superficial and sound good.”

Clinton is not prone to self-criticism, even of that semi-congratulatory spirit. So his remarks had only one translation: Somewhere between his mind and the ears of voters, the message is lost.

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Finding the message has been the chief preoccupation of Clinton aides meeting in Little Rock last weekend and suffering through some growing pains of their own.

A new headquarters has been picked out downtown, and legions of new workers are expected to be streaming in soon.

The biggest bone of contention has been how to deal with the candidacy of Ross Perot, the Texas businessman whose probable independent campaign for President has been giving Clinton thematic fits.

The meetings and a desire to touch base at home propelled Clinton here over the weekend, and his schedule defied the expected pace of a campaign just one week from primaries in major states like California, Ohio and New Jersey.

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On Friday, for example, he was in Arkansas by early afternoon. On Saturday, he was the guest of honor at a sparsely attended parade and a better-attended rally. On Sunday he went to church, and on Monday to a Memorial Day celebration and the Saline County Democratic meeting.

On Tuesday, he voted in Little Rock and had his first campaign event, a brief press conference with two dozen Ohio mayors, in late afternoon in Cleveland. Today was expected to be light as well.

Besides those events, Clinton was rarely seen in public. And in one of his few interchanges over the long weekend with reporters, he seemed pleased to talk only about one of his more successful ventures in recent weeks--losing weight.

How much had he lost? “Twelve pounds in about three weeks,” declared the governor, who has engaged in a losing battle against the effects of pizza and doughnuts since the campaign began.

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“I haven’t given up anything except desserts,” he added. “And if I don’t eat dinner early, I just pass.”

Perhaps mindful, he made a run into a Wendy’s hamburger shop Monday night and showed relative restraint by ordering only a grilled chicken sandwich, a cup of chili, and diet Coke. For the record, aides said the weight loss has been sped by Clinton’s more lax schedule, which allows him time to run. Clinton says he hopes to lose another 20 pounds, down to about an even 200.

Even if it is his back yard, and a small one at that, Arkansas is at present not an entirely safe haven for the governor.

On his arrival last weekend, Clinton was greeted with polls showing that 75% of the state’s voters want him to resign when he formally becomes the nominee.

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All the time in Arkansas has raised questions: Why spend so much time at home, when his presence in the biggest electoral prize of them all, California, has been minimal? Why not spend time in the states that can make the difference in November?

“I wasn’t here resting,” Clinton said Tuesday, when asked that question. “Except for Sunday, I did work on my campaign and I did work here I had to do. So I haven’t been resting here, and there’s nothing I can do about that now.”

A candidate who, in the words of one master of ceremonies Monday, “has been stomped on and dragged through the mud” like few others, Clinton retains his public optimism.

“These polls will change a hundred times between now and then,” he told reporters after church the other day, confronted again about surveys showing that he trails independent Perot as well as President Bush in many areas.

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“Look back to every previous election; ’84 is the only time when they didn’t change enough,” he said. “I believe the underlying truth of this election is that if there are these three choices, I am the candidate who has displayed a real commitment to making the system work for all the people. . . . And I think that will come out in this election.”


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