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Clinton Holds Out His Record as Election Issue : Politics: In risky move, he urges voters to choose between his policies and what the GOP is proposing.


WASHINGTON — President Clinton challenged voters Friday to turn the November midterm elections into a referendum on what course the nation should pursue over the next two years--a high-risk strategy that flies directly against the desires of many of his party's candidates.

"We have to now resolve to give the American people a choice," Clinton said at a news conference. Americans, he said, must decide whether they want the sort of changes he has proposed but that Republicans have strived to kill in Congress or whether they prefer the very different kind of policies embodied in the GOP's much-debated "Contract with America."

Clinton said he understands that many voters are distressed at what the government has achieved so far but warned against electing candidates--Republicans, in his view--who would make things worse.

"The voters are going to decide whether this is the right direction and I hope they decide that it is," he said. "My only concern is that the American people not go out and vote against what they are for and vote for what they are against," he said.

"We are getting our economic house in order. Jobs are being created at home. We are moving in the right direction," he added. "It's only a beginning, and more could have been done. But too many times an idea for creating jobs, reforming government, educating students or expanding income, fighting crime or cleaning up the environment or reforming the political system was met by someone trying to stop it, slow it, kill it or just talk it to death."

Clinton, according to officials close to him, is convinced of two things: first, that despite setbacks on issues from health care to political reform, the record of his first 20 months in office is better than most Americans appear to believe and, second, that if he can just get out of Washington and make that case, the voters will agree.

"The record is a good one and there is ample evidence that, if people know the record, they respond to it," he said.

Many Democratic campaign strategists doubt that, however, and--while they resist criticizing the White House in public--many are chilled by the idea of an unpopular President urging Americans to vote up or down on the future of his policies. Across the country, Democratic candidates have been distancing themselves from Clinton, trying to focus the voters on local concerns, not broad, national themes.

In private meetings, many strategists have urged that the White House avoid precisely the sort of argument Clinton made Friday. Clinton plans to make his argument repeatedly in the month remaining before the election. White House officials already have scheduled appearances for him in more than a dozen states over the next two weeks with an even more hectic schedule planned for the final days before voters go to the polls Nov. 8.

On other topics, Clinton delivered a strong defense of Henry G. Cisneros, the secretary of housing and urban development, and also said that he has not yet figured out what strategy to follow in reopening the health care debate next year.

The Justice Department has been investigating whether, at the time he was nominated, Cisneros had fully disclosed to the FBI that he had been making monthly payments to a woman with whom he had had an affair.

White House officials have said that if the FBI concludes he was not fully forthcoming, Cisneros will resign. But Clinton indicated that he believes Cisneros will be exonerated.

"We know what the facts were at the time" he was named, Clinton said. "He is doing the job that I hired him to do for the American people and, as long as he is doing that job at a high level, I think he ought to be permitted to continue to do it."

On the midterm elections, the essence of Clinton's argument is that what the Republicans are offering is a return to Reaganism and he repeatedly accused the GOP of seeking to take the country "back to the past."

Many Democratic strategists agree that many parts of the Republican "contract" are vulnerable to attack. While polls show Clinton is unpopular, voters have not, in hindsight, warmed to the policies of former presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, the Democratic pollsters have said.

Already many Democratic candidates have begun attacking the GOP contract, arguing that the large tax cuts it urges would go primarily to wealthy Americans, that its calls for tax cuts and defense-spending increases would lead to huge deficit increases and that its advocacy of a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution without specifying how to pay for it would require huge cuts in Medicare, Social Security or other popular benefits programs.

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