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Clinton Ties May Imperil Panetta's Bid

Election: Fund-raising scandal threatens potential gubernatorial candidacy of ex-White House chief of staff, strategists say.

March 31, 1997|CATHLEEN DECKER and MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITERS

As debuts go, it was not all that Leon Panetta might have hoped. Just before he delivered a high-profile speech in Sacramento earlier this month--a political homecoming and his first public flirtation with the 1998 governor's race--he was peppered with questions by reporters.

Not about his issue positions. Not about possible campaign themes. Instead, the former White House chief of staff was pressed about his connection to the campaign corruption allegations consuming Washington and his former colleagues.

"Panetta: Scandals wouldn't ruin his bid," the next-day headline in the San Jose Mercury News, his hometown paper, tartly summed up.

Much against Panetta's wishes, the tentacles of controversy from his last job are wrapping around the courtship of his next.

The campaign fund-raising scandal in Washington may not be inflicting much damage so far on Panetta's former boss, President Clinton, whose popularity ratings remain relatively high. But political strategists of various stripe believe that Panetta's potential candidacy is threatened--even before it begins--by the furor over White House coffees, Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers and illegal foreign campaign contributions.

Panetta's strength, his utter command of the White House operation under Clinton, has now become his greatest liability, placing him squarely in the center of a scandal that unfolded on his watch.

The former Monterey congressman, who resigned as chief of staff and returned to California after Clinton's second inauguration, has not been accused of any illegalities. Moreover, he says--and administration insiders confirm--that in the White House he played a mostly managerial role, leaving major political decisions to others, particularly Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes.

But Panetta attended the key meetings where political decisions were made, chipped in advice at times, and made it his job to see that decisions, once made, were implemented.

"He was clearly in charge," said one Democrat with close ties to the White House. And in the heat of a gubernatorial campaign, most other details will be in danger of being lost to public perception.

"Leon Panetta is a campaign commercial waiting to happen," said Dan Schnur, a Republican consultant and former aide to Gov. Pete Wilson.

Many Democrats agree. "I think it croaks him," said one party strategist. "In reality, he's going to be lucky this summer if he's not in Washington testifying before congressional committees."

Panetta appears particularly vulnerable to the travails of the Clinton administration because his position in the gubernatorial race is so precarious.

While he is known and well-liked in Washington, where he has worked most of his adult life, Panetta is a mystery to many Californians. An October Los Angeles Times poll found that 54% of registered voters had not heard enough about him to have an impression. Of those who had, 23% had a favorable impression of Panetta and 18% were unfavorably disposed.

In June 1994, Panetta was plucked from the Office of Management and Budget, which he headed, to serve as Clinton's staff chief and ride herd on a White House in chaos. He became the iron keeper of the president's schedule, funneling access to Clinton and signing off on how the chief executive spent his time.

In an interview Friday, Panetta insisted he never kept close tabs on campaign or fund-raising activities, leaving oversight of those functions to Ickes.

"I was not reviewing the checks as they came in," Panetta said, though he acknowledged being kept aware of progress toward overall fund-raising goals. "I viewed my role as chief of staff as making sure the business of the country was dealt with."

White House insiders confirm that Panetta never reviewed guest lists for the more than 100 controversial fund-raising coffees held at the White House and attended by such questionable figures as a Chinese arms merchant and a convicted stock swindler. Panetta attended just two of the coffee klatches.

But Panetta's proximity to power--and specifically his role as gatekeeper to the Oval Office--may make it difficult for him to shrug off the charges, Democrats and Republicans agree.

Testament to that is a document that political strategists consider likely to be prominent in any anti-Panetta campaign. In January 1996, the chief of staff received a memo from deputy Evelyn Lieberman that suggested, for a few weeks at least, raising money would be given a higher priority in the Oval Office than setting policy.

In order to give Clinton time to attend fund-raising coffees, Lieberman said, "staff who routinely brief the President will be asked to be flexible during this period and accept that their briefings may be considerably truncated or eliminated."

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