When Americans choose a new president, the process is familiar and well-marked: a yearlong cycle of campaigns and primaries capped by a general election.
But when Americans consider firing a president--as many are now--the landscape into which they step is uncharted and largely unknown.
The formal part of the process already has begun to unroll. The House of Representatives plans to begin its own inquiry into President Clinton's conduct this week and may vote on the next step, official impeachment hearings, as early as October.
But the more important forum, members of Congress say, is informal: the nation's quickening conversation as to whether Clinton should remain in the White House through the remaining 28 months of his term.
On "the constitutional-legal track . . . there's a very orderly, if seldom-used, process," said Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, a moderate Democrat who has been critical of Clinton's conduct.
"But there's a second track that will occur simultaneously, and that is the track of political leadership. What effect is this having on the president's capacity to lead domestically and in foreign policy? For that, there's less of a prescribed pattern of evaluation, and it will be more subjective," Graham said.
In that free-form public discussion, already well underway, a thousand factors may intrude. Some are obvious and immediate. How is the public judging independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report: as a damning indictment or as a pornographic assault?
Others are just over the horizon. When Monica S. Lewinsky begins to speak in public--as she may do soon--will that change perceptions of her presidential affair?
Still others seem more distant but may come to hold equal weight. Will the economy continue to be robust, or will Clinton's proud claims of prosperity fade? In a crisis overseas, will Clinton easily assume command, or will the scandal erode his ability to lead? In the next Congress, will the president have more friends--at a time when he needs them most--or far fewer?
If every factor breaks Clinton's way, one Democrat said Saturday, "we can get through this. It will be a blip on the radar screen."
But if things go badly, White House aides and House Democrats acknowledged, the president might soon face delegations of Democratic leaders urging him to resign.
A rough map of the road ahead:
Stage One: Battle Is Joined
This week, the House is expected to approve rules of engagement for the Judiciary Committee's preliminary inquest--nitty-gritty details about how subpoenas are to be issued, how witnesses can be cited for contempt, and other procedures. Expect a vicious fight between Republicans who want an expansive, free-ranging investigation and Democrats who do not.
The panel's investigation most likely will occur behind closed doors, through private hearings and interviews. Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) has refused to say whether he might call Clinton, Starr or Lewinsky to testify.
The committee's most important action will be its decision whether to recommend the launch of a full-scale impeachment inquiry. A ruling is expected before the House breaks for recess in early October--but only after a bitter partisan brawl.
"It's a very polarized, very partisan committee," noted Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), a liberal member who often contributes to the panel's high decibel level.
Even before the panel begins its deliberations, though, members of Congress are gauging the public reaction to the Starr report.
"What will have to happen is, the American people will have to take a look at this," said Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.), who heads the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. "If they read it and feel repulsed, and determine that this president has lost the ability to lead, they will express themselves.
"Politicians are followers. If the American people determine it's just about sex, he will continue as a president who is politically, at least, impotent," Linder said.
Clinton is not waiting for others to act. His official defenders are deploying, beginning with this morning's TV talk shows. The president himself plans an intensive week of meeting with members of Congress "to present a vigorous defense," one aide said.
The wild card: Lewinsky. The former White House intern may emerge from seclusion for TV and newspaper interviews soon. The impression she makes--scheming vixen or appealing victim--could color the public's view of Clinton considerably.
Stage Two: Trying to Govern
Republicans and Democrats alike noted that Congress is only a few weeks away from the first test of Clinton's ability to govern--and of the GOP's determination to challenge a damaged president.
By the end of September, Congress must pass a long list of appropriation bills, many of which include Republican-sponsored provisions Clinton has threatened to veto.
In similar circumstances in 1995, a standoff between Clinton and Republicans resulted in two partial government shutdowns--politically damaging to the GOP, which was blamed by much of the public for provoking a needless crisis.
Given Clinton's diminished standing, Republicans may be emboldened to challenge him once more. But they will be searching for a way to pin the blame on the president.
By the same token, some Democrats have urged Clinton to take a tough line on the appropriations--to reward his Democratic supporters in the House and to prove that he has not been handicapped by the scandal.
Meanwhile, Clinton faces another test of his viability as a leader: a schedule of high-visibility, big-ticket fund-raising events for Democratic congressional candidates and state party organizations.
If party leaders stay away and major donors quietly pull their checks, that will be a bad sign for the president--"potentially fatal," one party stalwart said. But no major defections have been reported so far. If the politicos and donors show up, Clinton can breathe easy.
Stage Three: Election, Later
If the House votes in October to begin a formal impeachment inquiry, those hearings will last well into 1999, meaning that the most important proceedings will be conducted not by this Congress but by the Congress elected in November. And if the House actually votes to impeach Clinton, the next step would be the president's trial in the Senate. So the stakes of November's congressional election, for Clinton, could not be higher.
Unfortunately for the president, Democrats' fortunes have slowly sagged all summer, dragged down in part by the scandal's disheartening effect on the party faithful. Congressional prognosticator Charles Cook says that Republicans may win an additional 15 seats in the House (boosting their majority to 243-192). And many of the new arrivals might well turn out to be GOP hard-liners, if they find themselves propelled to Washington because of public distaste for Clinton.
Other outside events could affect the environment surrounding an impeachment debate as well. If the economy falters, Clinton's job approval rating in public opinion polls, rock steady until now, could falter along with it.
But a foreign crisis could bounce to the president's benefit. "He could use another Afghanistan-Sudan incident," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, referring to the U.S. missile attacks on alleged terrorist facilities last month. "He can do that, and it shows that he is fulfilling the duties of his office."
Stage Four: Punishment?
If the House Judiciary Committee reaches the point of passing formal articles of impeachment next year, Democratic leaders likely will consider short-circuiting the process by asking Clinton to resign. (Nixon resigned in 1974 after the Judiciary Committee passed articles of impeachment but before they were debated by the full House.)
But committee Chairman Hyde has said he will only seek articles of impeachment if the effort has significant Democratic support.
If the inquest falls short of recommending Clinton's impeachment, House leaders of both parties still could try to pass a formal reprimand or censure of the president. That would have no practical effect on Clinton but would place members of Congress formally on record as disapproving his conduct.
All these scenarios remain hostage to what some nervous Democrats call "other shoes"--new bombshells about Clinton's behavior. "Other shoes" could include indictments of Clinton aides, a decision by Atty. Gen. Janet Reno to appoint an independent counsel to investigate 1992 campaign finance abuses or new findings in Starr's investigations of the White House handling of FBI files and other issues. Or they could include the kind of revelation Clinton supporters dread most: some new incident of personal misconduct by the president.
For the moment, however, Democratic operatives are looking for the bright side. "The key is the polls," one said. "If the people stay with Clinton . . . , if the economy stays good and the president picks the right issues next year, we can get through this. . . . Next year, this is only a memory."
Times staff writers Edwin Chen and Elizabeth Shogren contributed to this report.
* REBUTTAL--A point-by-point breakdown plus highlights.A28
* MIKE DOWNEY--Will president's friends stand by their man?A3
* OPINION--The fall elections will determine Clinton's fate.M1