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Health Plan Advocates Talk Up a Storm : Strategy: White House officials move quickly to get their story out to the public. They tap into a horde of radio and TV interview shows.

September 24, 1993|DAVID LAUTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The scene at the White House the morning after President Clinton's nationally televised speech on health care made vivid the strategy Clinton and his aides intend to follow for the next several weeks: Talk till you drop.

The President's advisers, having examined over the past few months the errors they made in the budget battle with Congress, concluded that they should have saturated the country with their side of the argument in the early days, when the public was forming its first impressions of the plan.

With that lesson in mind, Clinton aides arrayed rows of card tables on the North Lawn of the White House on Thursday morning so a number of the nation's radio talk-show hosts could set up their equipment, pull up their chairs and broadcast their programs--while virtually every White House aide above the rank of steward circulated among them giving interviews.

"Mack did eight on his way in this morning after doing the 'Today' show," said presidential adviser Skip Rutherford, referring to Chief of Staff Thomas (Mack) McLarty.

Meanwhile, on the South Lawn, groundskeepers pitched a tent for a huge health care rally designed to get Clinton on the evening TV news shows.

Later in the day, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who headed the White House health care reform task force, sat for an interview with CNN, and the President took part in a Tampa, Fla., town meeting for a special edition of ABC-TV's "Nightline."

On and on it will go.

White House strategists, who will run weekly tracking polls in order to gain a sense of how quickly people begin to form opinions about the Clinton plan, say they believe that the public will be intensely curious about the competing health care proposals for about a month--until people feel they understand them and begin to tune out.

Until that happens, they intend to make it as difficult as possible for opponents to get a word in edgewise.

There are, of course, some difficulties with the sales blitz.

A few of the talk-show hosts have been fuming about long delays in getting through the White House gates. The problem, it turns out, is that several are convicted felons--a status the Secret Service tends to disfavor--making clearance an unusually slow process.

Then there are the interviews. When White House Communications Director Mark D. Gearan sat down with conservative talk-show host Barbara Carlson of Minneapolis, she told her audience that she and others "were talking about (Gearan) in my hot tub, and I was thinking of him without clothes and I lost my concentration."

"A lot of people do," Gearan responded.

Then there was George Stephanopoulos, Gearan's flashier predecessor in the communications job. Rather than ask him about health care, one host demanded: "What's it like to be a sex symbol."

But if occasional irreverence is the price of exposure, Clinton and his aides seem more than willing to pay. And Republicans, sizing up the relatively lackluster performance of their designated response team after Clinton's speech Wednesday, have begun to fret about the White House's success in dominating the message so far.

All that could change, of course. Opponents of Clinton's plan have not yet begun the barrages of advertising and lobbying that White House strategists expect. Moreover, Clinton and his aides acknowledge--ruefully--that they have been in this position before.

Seven months ago, Clinton gave a highly successful speech outlining his budget plan, and initial polls showed a favorable public reaction. But in the ensuing weeks, that success quickly unraveled as Republicans convinced Americans that the bottom line of the plan was simply a big tax increase. Clinton spent most of the summer trying to dig back out of that hole.

This time, White House strategists insist, will be different. The budget plan, says Clinton pollster Stanley B. Greenberg, had too many disparate goals--a short-term increase in the deficit to stimulate the economy, a long-term reduction in the deficit to bring about growth in the long run, an energy tax to raise revenue and help the environment, and so on.

"Only the President could bring the competing goals together" in an overall rhetorical framework, and most Americans rapidly lost track of what he was trying to do, Greenberg said.

On health care, by contrast, Clinton has made a deliberate and careful attempt to keep the message relatively simple--sticking closely to his six principles of security, simplicity, savings, choice, quality and responsibility--and letting others argue about the details.

"We're dealing with goals that are very elemental," Greenberg said.

The focus groups that Greenberg supervised during the speech responded well to that approach, White House officials say. Audience members were particularly responsive to Clinton's call for emphasis on preventive care, his basic insistence on "insurance you can never lose," his denunciation of high prescription-drug prices and his call for the nation to do something about the easy access teen-agers have to automatic weapons in major cities.

In addition, White House aides say, the fact that many Republicans have pledged to work with Clinton and that the President has promised to be flexible on most of the details of his plan has created a far different atmosphere than the partisan contentiousness surrounding the budget fight.

"The whole tenor of the debate is different," Gearan said. "That's one of the things that's been learned."

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