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Clinton Beards Lions in Their Dens in Search of Votes : Politics: Tactic of standing up to adversaries on their turf aims to counter impression that he lacks leadership, aides say.

August 09, 1995|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — When Virginia Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. warned this week that President Clinton would need a "good security detail" to carry off a planned anti-smoking speech in the tobacco heartland of North Carolina, White House aides tut-tutted with indignation.

Yet in truth, the words from the pro-tobacco Republican played into a White House strategy intended to portray the President as tough. Indeed, one way Clinton and his advisers are trying to counter the impression that he will not stand up to adversaries is through precisely the technique that sparked Bliley's curt remark--having the President invade the home turf of opponents to deliver speeches on touchy subjects.

Care is taken to make sure these appearances don't put Clinton at physical risk, or even in much danger that he will be drowned out by hecklers. But they do offer insight into the White House's recognition that in his reelection drive, Clinton needs to address concerns that he lacks the quality pollsters say voters look for first: leadership.

"Obviously, one of his negatives has been that some people don't see him as willing to stand up on the tough ones," said one political adviser. "They see him as a conciliator, an appeaser, a waffler."

Thus, since the spring Clinton has gone to Michigan, home of the large Michigan Militia, to denounce the attitudes of paramilitary groups; flown to the import hub of Portland, Ore., to talk of slapping 100% tariffs on Japanese luxury cars; declared his sympathies for "angry white males" at a gathering of diversity-minded California Democrats; and galloped through Montana, a center of the "sagebrush rebellion," warning of anti-federal vigilantes.

Despite Bliley's warning on a Virginia radio show, for which he has already apologized, Clinton plans to lay out his argument for new federal curbs on teen-age smoking in an address in Charlotte today. He will not, however, reveal the conclusions of his deliberations on whether to exert federal regulation over the tobacco industry, as the Food and Drug Administration has recommended, aides say.

The strategy of choosing a surprising venue for a potentially unpalatable message has worked well for Clinton in the past. One of his most memorable political moments in the 1992 presidential campaign came when he denounced the lyrics of rapper Sister Souljah at a Rainbow Coalition meeting presided over by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. His remarks, intended to show his independence from leaders of the Democratic Party's important minority constituency, won Clinton a chilly reception from his immediate audience and became a source of continuing friction with Jackson.

Now he is using it as part of a broader strategy to convey toughness. To the same end, he has been threatening to veto many of the key pieces of legislation Republicans are pushing through Congress in their bid to reduce the size and scope of the federal government.

Over time, White House aides believe this strategy will convey an impression--especially with male voters--of a President who follows his own compass. "This will suggest that even if people don't agree with him, they have to respect him," one adviser said. "And that's what you need most in a President: Not necessarily agreement, but respect."

Of course, all of these efforts will be for naught unless Clinton follows up confrontational words with deeds. If he does not make at least some of his threatened vetoes, for instance, or eventually offers a plan on tobacco that smells of cave-in, "then it's worse than if you had done nothing at all," said one adviser. "You've got to have credibility."

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