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Some Fear Rumors Will Spell Rout for Democrats

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Sex sells, the saying goes. But even a whiff of scandal scalds, Democrats may discover.

Weeks--even months--could pass before the rumor and supposition swirling around President Clinton harden into fact. But already, one thing is clear: A political playing field that looked fairly level heading into the 1998 campaign has taken a Republican tilt in just the past week or so.

Even before the new allegations surfaced, the GOP seemed poised to keep control of Congress after November, likely picking up seats in the House and Senate. Now some Democrats fear a rout of Watergate-era proportions, recalling the GOP loss of four Senate and 43 House seats in the wake of President Nixon’s 1974 resignation.

“Voters punish parties for the sins of their leaders,” said Brian Lunde, former executive director of the Democratic National Committee and a party strategist in Washington, presuming the worst come November. “Voters who want to hit Clinton will have to take a swing at the party because the president won’t be on the ballot.”

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Fearful talk like that may seem premature, particularly when Clinton’s job-approval ratings are reaching record highs and voters seem far more angry at independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and the media than at the president.

And a month is an eternity in politics, to use one of the oldest cliches in the business, making November a distance almost beyond comprehension. “However things look now, I’m more concerned about how the public will be perceiving things in May,” said Robert Barnes, a Democratic consultant in San Francisco.

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The problem is that, true or false, the allegations could hardly have come at a worse time for Democrats, now at an important point in their recruiting process. Already, as Republicans crow, two prospective challengers have bowed out of House races in Georgia, though Democrats last week bagged a prize prospect for an important House race in Kentucky.

Even with strong candidates, without a quick resolution dispirited Democrats face the prospect of a depressed turnout come November, like the one that gravely damaged Republicans in the wake of Nixon’s resignation. The historical trend--with the party holding the White House typically losing congressional seats in off-year elections--is trouble enough.

But more important, a distracted or politically enfeebled Clinton could deny Democrats their single-greatest asset between now and the election: a cash-draw president at a time when the party and its candidate face dire financial needs.

“Monica Lewinsky isn’t a terribly big problem for Democratic candidates, per se,” said Jim Margolis, a Democratic strategist helping run the reelection effort for Sen. Barbara Boxer of California. “Where the pain comes, where the agony comes, is Bill Clinton is our fund-raiser-in-chief. To the extent he’s wounded, it’s more difficult.”

At a time when much of the public appears to be reserving judgment, many of the president’s fellow Democrats are waiting and watching as well. Some have retreated behind carefully qualified statements of support. Others have sought to more actively distance themselves from Clinton.

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Rep. Barbara B. Kennelly of Connecticut, a candidate for governor, effectively withdrew an invitation to the president to stump on her behalf--at least for now. In California, gubernatorial hopeful Al Checchi dismissed the chances of a wholesale backlash against his fellow Democrats. “This is not a party problem,” he said tartly. “This is the problem of one individual.”

Kenneth L. Khachigian, a veteran GOP strategist who witnessed Watergate at Nixon’s side, suggested candidates are wise to limit their political exposure by minimizing comment before the facts are clear. “Democrats have to know that anything they say now could be revisited in television spots all through November,” Khachigian said.

The nature of the allegations against the president have produced no small amount of we-told-you-so satisfaction among Republicans, who appear willing to believe the worst about Clinton’s conduct. “If these charges prove true, they’ll simply verify what Republicans said all along,” said Q. Whitfield Ayres, a GOP pollster active in the South. “And that is: Character matters.”

The resonance of the so-called character issue remains to be seen. Some even suggest Clinton’s troubles could have the odd effect of setting a higher (or lower) standard against which other candidates are measured. “Unless my opponent was a scalawag and intern-chaser of the highest magnitude, I probably wouldn’t risk raising this to any great degree,” said Khachigian. “Clinton, in effect, has raised the bar.”

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As often happens in elections, the most significant effect of the cloud over Clinton could be simply a change in voter turnout in November.

Republican Party researchers found that Democratic turnout surged by 1 million votes in 1974 after Nixon’s August resignation. But even more important, Republican turnout plunged by 4 million votes, compounding the GOP’s huge loss of House and Senate seats.

Times political writer Cathleen Decker in Los Angeles and staff writer Janet Hook in Washington contributed to this story.


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