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THE STARR REPORT

Strategy May Explain Why Top State Democrats Are Standing by Clinton

Politics: Candidates could look like opportunists if they turn backs on beleaguered president, who remains popular in California.

September 12, 1998|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

While other candidates head for the hills, California's top-of-the-ticket Democrats have been steadfast in their solidarity alongside President Clinton.

Although they lately have been condemning his conduct with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky in progressively harsher terms, gubernatorial nominee Gray Davis and U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer have nonetheless said they welcome the chance to campaign alongside Clinton this fall--making them among the more hospitable Democratic contenders anywhere in the country.

"I feel it's my obligation to work with him--I like to work with him," Boxer said this week, just hours before independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigative report landed on Capitol Hill. A spokesman said Friday that the senator stands by those remarks.

Davis, for his part, mentions the president only when asked. But he too has been effusive in his praise. He lauded Clinton at a Labor Day campaign stop as "the best president for California in my lifetime" and said he'd be glad to campaign alongside Clinton this fall. Not every Democrat facing voters this November offers the same measure of support. In fact, strategists for candidates in two of California's more competitive House races said they have no intention of allowing Clinton anywhere near their candidates. "By campaigning with Clinton, you're inviting people to focus on something unpleasant and hurtful," said one of the strategists. "Why in the world would you ever do that?"

Perhaps because Boxer and Davis have few good alternatives.

Their steadfastness--at least for now--may reflect not so much loyalty as calculation: Clinton always has been more popular in California than in most other states. Even though his approval rating has ebbed a bit, a Field Poll conducted late last month found a solid 62% of Californians still approving of his overall job performance, even in the wake of his confessed affair with Lewinsky.

"In addition to the Continental Divide, we've got a message divide in terms of communication," said poll taker Mervin Field. "People here often look at what's going on inside the Washington Beltway with a certain distance, in a detached and sometimes bemused fashion."

Further, neither Davis nor Boxer may want to appear opportunistic.

There could come a time when the party's candidates have no choice but to abandon Clinton, several Democratic consultants said. One of them, bemoaning the more explicit details revealed Friday in Starr's report, suggested, "With all this gag-me-with-a-spoon evidence, it's going to be very hard for people" not to distance themselves from Clinton.

At the same time, however, it is unclear how the public will react to the seamy details--or to an outbreak of suddenly scandalized Democrats.

"You can go so far over the line in your zeal to separate yourself that you don't look credible," said a Democratic strategist who, like most, spoke most candidly on condition of anonymity. "If you're perceived as distancing yourself for no purpose other than to save your own hide, it's a political problem. Not just with the [Democratic] base, but people in general."

Indeed, when Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening snubbed Clinton at a campaign stop in the Washington suburbs this week, many observers, both Democratic and Republican, criticized him for appearing less than gracious. But Glendening is locked in a neck-and-neck fight with Ellen Sauerbrey, the Republican he just inched past in 1994, and polls there show Clinton's support falling sharply.

Davis, in contrast, enjoys a comfortable--although hardly rock-solid--lead over Republican Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, allowing him room for perhaps a bit more magnanimity.

"A lot of Democrats would like to personally strangle Clinton for what he's done," said one Democrat close to Davis. "But you can't detract from what [Clinton] has done to almost single-handedly reposition the Democratic Party in such a way that Democrats have become much more competitive than they were for most of the last few decades."

For Boxer, support for Clinton is far more personal. For one thing, he's family; her daughter, Nicole, is married to First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's brother, Tony.

"The one thing that kept going through my mind as she made her speech on the Senate floor"--condemning Clinton's personal morality but praising his public policies--"was, 'How do you sit across from this guy at Thanksgiving dinner?' " said political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe. "She's in a very special situation."

There are also campaign finances to consider. Boxer frankly acknowledges that she needs the kind of big money that only the president can raise for her neck-and-neck reelection fight against state Treasurer Matt Fong.

And as one sympathetic Democratic strategist said of Boxer and Davis: 'They're taking all the slings and arrows." Indeed, Fong renewed his attack on Boxer on Friday for planning to campaign with the president--"so they might as well get at least some of the benefits," the strategist said.

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