WASHINGTON — President Clinton said Wednesday that he hopes Americans have noticed "inner changes" in him since he acknowledged his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky and charged that Republicans are using the matter as a campaign issue to distract voters from their unpopular positions on key policies from education to HMO reform.
"I hope the American people have seen in me over these last few weeks a real commitment to doing what I told them I would do from the beginning: to try to atone to them for what happened and to try to redouble my efforts to be a good president," Clinton said at a news conference.
The president was reacting to a GOP television advertising campaign that equates voting for Democrats in Tuesday's elections with rewarding the president for his behavior and deceit.
House Democrats and the liberal group People for the American Way plan to counter the new ads with hard-hitting political commercials of their own. Both campaigns will criticize Republicans for focusing on impeachment instead of the issues that touch Americans' lives--like saving the Social Security system, regulating HMOs and improving education.
Clinton stressed that Republicans are free to run whatever kind of ad campaign they want, but he took advantage of the news conference with Colombian President Andres Pastrana to answer the accusations in the commercials.
One ad shows two women talking about what they told their children about the Lewinsky scandal. "For seven months he lied to us," one of the women says.
Clinton suggested Wednesday that parents tell children the Lewinsky matter shows that "when someone makes a mistake, they should admit it and try to rectify it." He added that experience has shown him that by acknowledging mistakes and making up for them, a person can become "stronger in their personal lives, in their family lives and in their work lives."
Another of the GOP commercials asks if Clinton should be rewarded for "not telling the truth" and concludes that the election can be summed up this way: "Reward Bill Clinton. Or vote Republican."
Responding to the GOP ads' assertion that he is not trustworthy, Clinton said his professional record of living up to the promises he made to the American people proves that he is. He mentioned that an advisor on Wednesday showed him a list of the 1992 campaign promises he made to help poor communities and pointed out that each of them had been accomplished.
"I'm not trying to sugarcoat the fact that I made a mistake and that I didn't want anybody to know about it," Clinton said. "The American people have had quite a decent amount of exposure to that. I hope very much that they have seen that I'm doing my best to atone for it."
The first GOP ad is expected to run in Santa Barbara, Cincinnati and on cable TV in New York. The second is running in three Southern congressional districts where Republicans are trying to upset incumbents, GOP sources said. A third anti-Clinton ad, which shows the president wagging his finger in denying the Lewinsky affair, will run in 20 markets, the sources said. But the majority of the $10-million ad buy will fund 29 localized ads to run in 40 markets, the sources added.
"The unspoken question for the voters in 1998 is, after all we've learned, do we trust Bill Clinton's judgment so much that we want to reward him with a Democratic Congress and complete control of our government," Jim Nicholson, GOP National Committee chairman, said in a statement. "There is only one choice, and these commercials make that case."
Republicans are hoping that the commercials will help to energize their base, because some races could hinge on turnout--which is expected to be low.
But White House officials and other Democrats argued that the campaign will backfire on Republicans. Public opinion polls show that the majority of Americans feel they have heard too much already about the Lewinsky scandal and do not approve of the way congressional Republicans are handling the impeachment process. Earlier this month, the House voted to hold an impeachment inquiry.
"I really believe the American people will react poorly to this," House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said. "I think it is a risky strategy on their part."
The president and other Democrats also are putting a huge emphasis on prodding people to the polls. Several times during the press conference Wednesday, Clinton stressed that this is not an "ordinary" election.
"Folks should show up and vote," Clinton said. "And they should know that the decision not to vote is also a decision that will affect their lives."
Times political writer Ronald Brownstein contributed to this story.