Democrat Janice Hahn and Republican Steve Kuykendall were more than 30 minutes into their debate in Torrance on Saturday morning before the discussion turned to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's blistering report on President Clinton.
After long and winding explanations, Hahn and Kuykendall--locked in a tight battle in the closely divided 36th congressional district--wound up saying essentially the same thing. Both called on Congress to take appropriate action without ever saying precisely what that might be.
After the debate, Kuykendall was just as circumspect: "That report was just delivered . . . and it's got to be looked at. I'm not ready to say the guy ought to resign [or] the guy ought to be impeached because it's far too grave an issue to do that off the cuff."
The exchange in Torrance typified the pattern emerging as candidates around the country deal with the cloud looming over the fall election--Clinton's sexual relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky. While a growing number of Republicans in safely conservative districts are calling on the president to resign and many Democrats from reliably liberal districts are staunchly defending him, most incumbents and challengers from marginal, closely-contested, seats are taking a much more cautious approach.
Despite its explosive accusations, Starr's report does not yet appear to be changing that dynamic. Rather than igniting a stampede away from Clinton--or a Democratic backlash against the prosecutor--the report is inspiring mostly caution as candidates try to assess whether the public will support a serious effort to remove the president from office.
Candidate Offers Encouragement
At a popcorn-and-Pepsi rally Saturday with Vice President Al Gore in Vancouver, Wash., for instance, Democratic House hopeful Brian Baird never referred directly to the crisis in Washington but nonetheless offered careful encouragement to Clinton.
"We need to stop the divisiveness, stop the partisanship, stop the scandal-mongering," said Baird, whose race for an open seat is a top priority for both parties.
"By and large, most [candidates] are pretty calm today," one senior Democratic congressional strategist in Washington said Saturday. "It's been the case the entire time that people in the most competitive races . . . have tried to stay away from this."
Edwards, a young, wealthy trial lawyer, may represent the Democrats' best hope this fall of dislodging a Republican Senate incumbent. A poll conducted by a conservative North Carolina think tank last week showed him in a statistical dead heat with GOP Sen. Lauch Faircloth.
Edwards' speech was a Clinton-like appeal for better schools, patient rights in their dealings with health maintenance organizations and a stronger Social Security system. But not once in his speech to the Democratic women did he mention the president's name.
Although Edwards avoided the Clinton scandal in his speech, he could not escape pointed questioning from local reporters before he took the stage. Even before the release of Starr's report, Edwards already had said he would not invite Clinton--who appeared at a fund-raiser for him in late July--back to the state until he fully answered all questions about the controversy.
But much like Hahn and Kuykendall, Edwards took an emphatically cautious approach to the Starr report--neither tying himself to Clinton nor entirely throwing him overboard.
Edwards said Clinton's sexual conduct and lies were "absolutely wrong," but he also complained about the special prosecutor's long and costly investigation. "We don't need a fourth branch of government," he declared.
On the key question of whether Clinton should resign or face impeachment, Edwards declined to commit himself. "Those of us who may be serving in the Senate and could be called upon to make a final decision on the removal from office of the president of the United States have an obligation to reserve judgment until all the facts are in," he said.
Strikingly, several of the Republican Senate candidates in the most closely contested races are taking identical positions. In Illinois, for instance, conservative GOP Senate nominee Peter Fitzgerald--running in one of Clinton's strongest states in 1996--has refused to speculate about resignation or impeachment, citing reasons identical to those given by Edwards.
Fitzgerald--who leads Democratic Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun in the latest surveys--did not change his position Saturday in light of the Starr report.
In California, where Clinton's popularity seems to be holding steady, Republican Senate candidate Matt Fong has taken the same approach as Edwards and Fitzgerald, even while repeatedly accusing his Democratic foe, Sen. Barbara Boxer, of hypocrisy for not being more pointed in her own criticism of Clinton.
Not all candidates in close races have followed suit. Just before the release of Starr's report, two Republicans challenging incumbent Democrats--Bob Inglis in South Carolina and John E. Ensign in Nevada--called on Clinton to resign.
In Washington state, populist conservative Rep. Linda Smith--a longtime Clinton critic who is entangled in a close race for the Republican Senate nomination--immediately seized on the Starr report, publishing it on her web page and criticizing Democratic incumbent Patty Murray in a series of media interviews for remaining silent about the president's conduct.
"I think [Clinton] should do the honorable thing and step down," Smith said in an interview. "He has been a terrible model for the nation in his personal behavior but he is also, as far as I'm concerned, a risk."
Among candidates in competitive races, the more common response appears to be exemplified by Hahn and Kuykendall. The two are battling in a district that Clinton narrowly carried in 1996 and that has been represented by Democrat Jane Harman, who ran unsuccessfully for governor this year.
Clinton Diminished, Candidate Suggests
Kuykendall adopted a tone more of sorrow than anger at Saturday's debate, suggesting that Clinton has been greatly diminished as president, has hurt the country and left the White House rudderless. On the crucial matter of resignation or impeachment, however, he said: "I don't know how to deal with it, quite frankly."
Hahn, in turn, denounced Clinton's personal behavior as "reprehensible and an embarrassment to this country." But, she continued, the true test will be the ability of Congress to deal with the matter "and make the right judgment. And that's a judgment that will hopefully be based on all the evidence available to them."
The brief exchange, lasting no more than five minutes, drew by far the most raucous response of the 90-minute debate, with partisans in the crowd of a few hundred spectators booing, hissing, cheering and exchanging catcalls that drowned out the candidates at one point.
"Shut up!" one woman exclaimed as Kuykendall criticized Clinton. "Answer the question!" another woman taunted Hahn, as she gingerly picked her way through a carefully measured response.
Those sharp words underscored another dynamic apparent at the political gatherings in North Carolina and California.
Rather than destabilizing partisan alignments, Starr's report seemed to be hardening them--with conservative voters intensifying their criticism of the president and rank-and-file Democrats, though often criticizing his behavior, insisting that the investigation had gone overboard.
Brownstein reported from Washington and Barabak from Torrance. Times staff writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar in North Carolina and Kim Murphy in Seattle contributed to this story.