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California and the West

Clinton Creates Dilemma for Women Candidates

Democrats: After sex scandal they are left to embrace the president's policies while rejecting his actions.


SACRAMENTO — The banquet room smells of Sterno as the local Chamber of Commerce members munch skeptically away. Sandie Dunn leaves her carrot cake to take up the business at hand--convincing this melting pot of soccer moms, suits and farmers that a Democrat can still represent a congressional district that grows more conservative by the hour.

Dunn talks to them about the sanctity of Social Security, about schools so crowded that storage closets serve as classrooms, about the right to own a hunting rifle but not an assault weapon. It is the centrist agenda, the Clinton agenda, although she knows better than to call it that.

Then an elderly man in the back asks the question--if "Lord willing," it comes to that, would she vote to impeach the president?

"If the evidence demonstrates there was a violation of the law," she says without blinking, "I would make a decision to impeach."

And there is the dilemma President Clinton has bequeathed female Democratic candidates all over the nation: Left to embrace the man's policies while rejecting the man, they raise one fist to cheer him and slug him with the other.

"They don't have the benefit of embracing an enormously popular president," said a Democratic consultant based in Washington. "We've had this great run in America, and then you are the Democratic nominee and you thought you were going to get this great boost and yikes, you get this."

The Monica S. Lewinsky scandal is the X factor in every competitive congressional race in the country, and most candidates are busily scribbling it into the campaign's calculus. But Clinton's crisis poses an even greater challenge to Democratic women on the ballot--many of them in California--who past voting trends have shown are the most endangered by a low voter turnout.

Based on studies of recent elections, the group of voters most likely to stay home in disgust are the fabled soccer moms--the suburban housewives who flocked to the polls in 1992 and pushed Clinton to his first White House victory, then vanished in record numbers two years later and gave the GOP control of Congress.

Theirs is not a knee-jerk support of female Democratic candidates, but of the issues those candidates most often support--child care, health care, Medicare, Social Security and education--topics getting lost in the clatter surrounding the scandal.

"The hardest part is that campaigns can't seem to get beyond this. This was not part of anyone's campaign plan," said Stephanie Cohen, spokeswoman for Emily's List, a Washington-based women's political advocacy group. "You want to talk about HMO reform, education, saving Social Security, and then candidates are constantly sidetracked into, 'Will you campaign with the president?' "

In California, Dunn is just one of several Democratic women in tight House races for whom the Clinton scandal has proven an extra burden. Others include Janice Hahn, running for the South Bay-based seat Democratic Rep. Jane Harman is giving up, and Christine Kehoe, who is trying to topple Republican Rep. Brian Bilbray in San Diego. Two Democratic incumbents--Reps. Ellen O. Tauscher of Pleasanton and Lois Capps of Santa Barbara--are in dicier races than expected, thanks in some part to the president's extramarital adventures.

There is no playbook formula for handling what has proven an embarrassing and unprecedented double bind for Democratic women such as these. And the way they choose to address the topic seems to have more to do with personal style than political strategy. In waters this uncharted, there is no right answer.

If Dunn, who is running for the West Sacramento seat left open by Democratic Rep. Vic Fazio's retirement, ignores the subject unless asked, Tauscher has come out swinging, calling Clinton's conduct reckless, self-indulgent, deplorable. In a recent debate, Hahn chastised Clinton, and declared the impeachment process second only to an act of war, but hasn't mentioned it publicly since.

"They are all over the map," said California-based GOP consultant Dan Schnur. "Some are extraordinarily supportive, others have been very, very harsh. But a candidate who tries to defend the president loses a lot of credibility with his or her constituents."

Campaign spokesmen, uplifted by the president's enduring popularity and a public reaction that has confounded pundits at every turn, insist their candidates have risen above the scandal. The voting public doesn't care, they assert, and Democrats will not punish candidates for the president's misdeeds.

"The damned truth is we go door-to-door and it doesn't come up. It does not come up. People are more concerned about the issues that affect their lives," said Julio Ramirez, Hahn's campaign consultant.

But privately, Democratic strategists acknowledge that it is always the elephant in the room, and in races where a few hundred votes can make the difference, this one cannot be ignored.

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