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White House Sees Glimmer Amid Election Gloom

October 17, 1994|DAVID LAUTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — With a solid week of campaigning under their belts and just over three more to go before voters cast their ballots, White House officials have shed some of the gloom that hung over their view of this year's midterm election.

"There are some glimmers that we're beginning to turn a corner," a White House official said Sunday. "At least," said another official, "we've gotten beyond the stage of feeling we had to just hide here and say nothing. We're back on offense."

After seeming uncertain for weeks about what to say to voters in the wake of a disastrous congressional finale, President Clinton now has a theme he is comfortable with--that voters should not allow Republicans to return the country to the economic policies of the 1980s--and a clear target, the GOP's "contract with America" to shoot at.

At the same time, a week of good news on the foreign policy front--the apparent backing down of Saddam Hussein in Iraq coupled with the return of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to Haiti--seems to have boosted Clinton, at least temporarily, in the public eye.

Even as his short-term prospects begin to brighten a bit, however, Clinton's aides have begun to acknowledge just how grim the long-term view appears.

The Democrats may escape this fall's elections without the complete meltdown many of them feared, although even that prognosis remains clouded. And, looking ahead, Clinton himself may well be able to win reelection; his poll ratings, while bad, are not significantly worse than Ronald Reagan's two years before he overwhelmingly won a second term.

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But Clinton's presidency, in the view of the President and his key aides, was always supposed to be about more than mere survival. Clinton came into office with a clear project in mind--to rebuild American faith in government, a faith that had been shattered by the Vietnam War, Watergate, social decay in the cities and two decades of slow income growth for middle-income families.

By achieving that goal, Clinton believed, he could build a new, stable Democratic majority to replace the old coalition that was assembled under Franklin D. Roosevelt and crumbled under Lyndon B. Johnson.

Measured by that standard, Clinton aides admit, their Administration so far has failed.

"We've really lost two years," said a White House official in a recent interview. "We're no closer than when we started."

That failure, so far, does not mean that voters in large numbers have begun to embrace conservative Republicanism. Rather, as has been the case for the last several years, large chunks of the electorate remain rootless and alienated from both parties. That alienation seems likely to lead to below normal voter turnout this year, although some pollsters predict that people will show up in large numbers to vote against all incumbents.

Some recent polls, and the experiences of candidates in disparate parts of the country, indicate that the GOP may have erred in trying to turn these elections into an ideological referendum instead of focusing simply on Clinton's unpopularity.

White House officials hope that is the case. "It took through last weekend for the Republican tactics to begin sinking in" with voters, said Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos. But in recent days, he asserted, surveys by White House pollster Stanley B. Greenberg have begun to show Democrats regaining some ground.

Even some Republicans concede that point, while still insisting their party is heading for an excellent showing in November's balloting. "They've gained back a point or two," said Republican pollster William McInturff, "but we're still going to end up with the highest number of seats we've had (in the House) in a generation. I'll go home happy."

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Indeed, although Democrats find they are doing better now that they are finally out of Washington and home campaigning full time, the party continues to face rough prospects.

In the Senate, for example, where Republicans need to pick up seven seats in order to gain a majority, six Democratic senators are retiring, vacating seats in Maine, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Arizona. As of now, the party cannot claim a solid lead in any of those contests.

And in the House, while Democrats point to local circumstances that might allow them to win many close contests nationwide, they concede that a strong Republican tide could still make such calculations irrelevant.

Above all, they admit that Americans have turned deeply sour on precisely the issue on which Clinton had hoped to make the most headway--faith in government's ability to do the right thing.

Polls this summer and fall consistently have shown that two years after Clinton's election, Americans are more skeptical of government than ever. Indeed, in state after state, even Democratic candidates for high government office are running, not by promising that they can do more for their constituents, but by pledging to do less to them.

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