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DECISION '98 / THE FINAL COUNT

White House Basks in Results Afterglow

Campaign: Clinton stuck to a low-key strategy, and it paid off. He calls the outcome 'astonishing' and says he's proud of Democrats.

November 05, 1998|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — More than two months ago, the White House set its game plan: President Clinton would conduct a low-key campaign for Democratic candidates, avoiding large, public rallies and a frenetic cross-country dash in the closing days before the election.

The idea was to avoid giving Republicans--and others skeptical about Clinton--impetus to vote against candidates supporting him. Secondarily, the White House hoped to avoid televised images of angry voters with ugly protest signs confronting Clinton and demanding his resignation over the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal.

The president stuck to that political course and it paid off. On Wednesday, with the partisan makeup of the Senate unchanged and Democrats defying historic trends to make gains in the House, he and his aides were left with a picture prettier than any they could have imagined in the weeks after the full dimensions of the Lewinsky scandal became known.

"Astonishing results," Clinton said, adding at another point, "I am very proud of what our party did yesterday in the face of the tide of history and an enormous financial disadvantage."

His hands folded calmly on the glossy Cabinet Room table, he called the election "a vindication of the policies and of the general policy of putting partisanship behind progress and of putting people before politics."

But that was about as far as anyone at the White House was willing to go in terms of on-the-record gloating, a practice administration officials have had limited opportunity to enjoy over the last year. Doug Sosnick, Clinton's newly named senior advisor, instructed the staff at the start of the day: "There will be no gloating."

The question of impeachment, the president said, as he has before, "is in the hands of Congress and the American people. . . . I have nothing else to say about that."

But the White House could not have signaled a more relaxed mood.

Indeed, when Clinton was asked about the victory of former professional wrestler Jesse "The Body" Ventura in the Minnesota gubernatorial race, he cracked: "I think that you're going to have a lot of politicians spending time in gyms now."

John Podesta, the new White House chief of staff, said at the outset of a news conference at which he announced the lineup of senior officials chosen to flesh out the top ranks at the White House: "I want to start off with an important announcement. On the advice of my new team, I've decided to change my nickname . . . to John 'The Body' Podesta."

There was also surprise, at least "a little bit of that," conceded White House spokesman Joe Lockhart, more reserved than the president himself, over the Democrats' gain of five seats in the House.

Clinton also will be dealing with a Senate that will have 55 Republicans and 45 Democrats, just as it is in the current Congress. The GOP once thought it might be able to win the additional five seats that would have given it the 60 votes needed to cut off filibusters.

Just as happily for the White House, a poll of voters found that 63% opposed impeachment and 58% said Congress should not even conduct hearings on the matter.

*

Times staff writer Elizabeth Shogren contributed to this story.

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