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Clinton Hones Outsider Image in Closing Days

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

In the last lingering days of the presidential campaign, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton is again presenting himself in the mold in which he began the race--the outsider fighting the Washington Establishment and, even, his own party.

The whirlwind of charges and countercharges that have enveloped Clinton’s opponents, President Bush and independent Ross Perot, have left the Democratic presidential nominee alone in the more placid eye of the storm, better able to frame his own message without interference in the campaign’s closing days than he might have imagined.

His self-styled image, the one carefully crafted throughout his political career, is of a so-called “new Democrat,” a description that Clinton on Tuesday continually contrasted with what he described as a more stagnant Republican Party.

At a sun-splattered midday gathering in Tampa, Clinton defined the distinctions sharply.

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“I think there is a tired old Republican Party that’s run out of energy, ideas, direction and compassion and they ought to be run out of town,” said Clinton. “I believe there is a strong new Democratic Party that has attracted the support of Democrats, Republicans, independents, former Perot supporters from coast-to-coast because we offer a new direction for America.”

Midway through Clinton’s lines, the audience took up the chant that echoed at each of his rallies Tuesday: “One more week!”

The Democrat, appearing both energized and relieved, assented. “One more week,” he said.

In a series of rallies that took him from Georgia to Florida and on to Louisiana--three areas rich in electoral votes where a traditional Democratic message has not sold well in recent presidential races--Clinton hewed to a conservative, sober tone as he sought to redefine his candidacy and his party.

“I have tried to build a new Democratic Party that believes in growth in the private sector, that believes in not bigger government but more efficient government, that believes in a partnership between government and business and labor and education,” he said in Augusta, Ga., where a raucous crowd gathered in an amphitheater alongside the Savannah River.

The much sought-after mantle of outsider was Clinton’s property early in the presidential race, when his only opponent was a sitting President. But Perot, in both incarnations of his campaign, has continually threatened to rip it from Clinton’s grasp.

But the brouhaha between Bush and Perot over alleged “dirty tricks” has raised new questions about the Texas businessman’s temperament and freed Clinton to set off on his own course.

That relative freedom is a luxury not often afforded candidates in the last days of a hard-fought race. The advantage could vanish any moment, and as insurance Clinton has kept up his caustic characterizations of Bush.

The Democrat’s outsider approach is aimed in two directions--at the Washington Establishment, a volley meant for Bush, and at the traditional notion of Democrats, a thrust meant to curry favor with voters who might otherwise be attracted to Perot.

Clinton drew repeatedly on recent news stories that have characterized the Administration’s varied law enforcement agencies as being at each other’s throats. In particular, he cited the feud between the CIA and the Justice Department over which is to blame for failing to present accurate information in a federal court case being heard in Atlanta that deals with questionable loans to Iraq.

“This is an Administration divided against itself, with no firm convictions, in total disarray,” Clinton said in Tampa.

In pressing his case in Florida--home of 25 electoral votes--Clinton noted that Bush won the state in 1988 with more than 60% of the vote.

Since then, Clinton added, “unemployment has gone up, airline companies based in Florida have been bankrupted, the elderly people have seen no attempt to control health care costs. . . . The economy of Florida is in a shambles.”

“If we carry Florida, it is over for trickle-down economics,” he said.

Clinton’s notion that the Democratic Party has changed its stripes was buttressed Tuesday by his own words and those of a Democratic senator who joined him along the way.

In Georgia, Sen. Sam Nunn, the well-respected expert on defense, effectively sanctioned Clinton’s commitment to certain conservative principles.

“Gov. Bill Clinton believes in a strong Army, believes in a strong nuclear deterrent . . . and he believes in a strong America,” Nunn said.

Clinton himself advocated “a defense policy that leaves us with the strongest defense in the world but one adequately designed to meet the challenges of the post-Cold War era.” He offered no specifics.

He also brought up what he called “another example of the difference in the Democratic Party I want to lead and where we are now.”

“I do not want to regulate business to death,” he said. “I am a job creator, not a job destroyer.”

In Tampa, Clinton renewed another set of promises meant to underscore his differences with past Democrats: He pledged to cut the size of the White House staff by 25% and invoke strong strictures on lobbying.

While he did not shy away from scathing criticisms of Bush, Clinton took time to cast his proposals within a broadly optimistic appeal to voters. He insisted that despite his well-demonstrated ability to deliver stinging political punches, he is at heart a political pacifist.

“In the last week, I hope that at least in my campaign we can lift the sights of the American people and focus folks on the future, on what is going to happen the day after the election,” he told several thousand people at the riverfront in Augusta, a site he had traveled to by boat from downstream on the Savannah River.

“After the election, there’ll be no charges to answer, nobody to make fun of, only the American people, their problems and their promise out there, and the issue is what are we gonna do to move our country forward and lift our country up? That is what I got in this race to talk about.”

The candidate is campaigning with as much ease as he has in recent months; he joked openly at the rally in Augusta, where a man yelling “draft dodger” at him was escorted from the amphitheater by police.

“Just relax,” said Clinton, talking as much to himself as to his audience. “You only have to put up with him for six more days.”


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