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CLINTON UNDER FIRE

Clinton to Test Popular Waters With Visit to Friendly Illinois

Appearance: Trip to Champaign-Urbana was planned before allegations surfaced. He won't be taking questions, but will work assuredly big crowds.

January 28, 1998|JUDY PASTERNAK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — President Clinton will venture today into historically friendly territory, America's Midwest, on a journey planned the week before allegations surfaced that he'd engaged in a sexual relationship with a onetime White House intern.

Although the day will focus on themes from Tuesday's State of the Union address, the controversy has fueled a run on tickets and a small-town debate over whether to pay for the appearance of a president engulfed by such accusations.

Clinton will not be taking questions in a formal setting. But he may get his first taste of the national reaction to his problems, as well as to his policies, by working the crowds in the twin towns of Champaign and Urbana, which share the flagship campus of the University of Illinois, and in LaCrosse, Wis.

And crowds there certainly will be.

The University of Illinois had allotted four days to distribute free tickets to the event, but they were all snatched up in only four hours. Based on previous experience, White House officials had given the school pre-Monica S. Lewinsky advice to "overbook" to make sure that its 12,000-seat arena would be filled for Clinton's morning talk, said Associate Chancellor Bill Murphy. Now, the university has arranged overflow seating for thousands more at a nearby physical education building, where ticket-holders can watch Clinton on closed-circuit television. Afterward, the visiting dignitaries promise to stop there as well, Murphy said.

Vice President Al Gore and Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley will accompany Clinton.

Both of Illinois' Democratic senators will fly from Washington on Air Force One and will appear with the president. None of the four Democratic gubernatorial candidates will be there, citing various scheduling conflicts.

"This is the first scandal that's touched the people," said Jon Berlin, editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper the Daily Illini. "It's going to be pretty crazy."

The requisite jokes are swirling around, and the charges and leaks in Washington are the stuff of much classroom discussion.

Still, said Berlin, "there would have been a lot of excitement anyway. He is the president of the United States, after all."

Michael Raycraft, a university employee who stood in a line that snaked for blocks to get a ticket, agreed. "The scandal makes no difference. I'm going because I am curious. He's a celebrity," he said. "People would go to see Saddam Hussein if he came to speak here, just to say they saw him."

In LaCrosse, where 30,000 tickets have been given out for 15,000 seats, the City Council balked at footing the bill for Clinton's visit "because of the president's personal problems," said Mayor John Medinger. He added that the city had always paid for previous such visits, the last being that of George Bush in 1992.

The White House told Medinger that it had no budget to cover the expenses, but by Tuesday, a compromise was struck: The city will pay for police overtime; the federal government, for stages, sound, lighting and fencing.

Neither of Wisconsin's senators, both Democrats, will be with Clinton. Both said they would be dealing with congressional business.

Coldwell-Banker Barbour Realtors decided to go ahead with plans to pay for a welcome banner in midtown and 3,500 miniature American flags to line the route from the airport, despite several calls of complaint and a client who threatened to cancel his listing.

The 20 agents huddled together Saturday morning and worried if it made business sense to continue.

Finally, office manager Mary Scheel said, "We thought, No. 1: We said we'd do it. We shouldn't walk away. No. 2: The man is still innocent until proven guilty. No. 3: This is not a political statement; this is a statement of our patriotism."

Besides, she added, "when you look at it overall, he's done an awful lot of good things too."

This is the region where a 1992 bus tour gave Clinton's first presidential campaign a post-convention boost, and where he was renominated in 1996.

He carried both Champaign-Urbana, with a combined population of more than 100,000, and LaCrosse, with its 52,000 people, in both campaigns.

Times researcher John Beckham contributed to this story.

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