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Clinton Finds Capital's Waltz Hard to Master

Handling of budget, Bosnia, gays in military raises questions about White House's focus

TO the Clinton White House, a veteran Democrat who supports the president laments, Washington, D.C., means "just three electoral votes."

But a lack of savvy in wielding power and moving his agenda inside the legendary Beltway - a failing now widely acknowledged in both parties - is exacting a cost. Mr. Clinton is having trouble mustering support.

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"Welcome to the National Football League," says Republican lobbyist Tom Korologos, suggesting that Clinton is not quite ready for the big time.

This week, Clinton moved back into full campaign mode and hit the road Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday to pitch his economic plan. Yet the national news was dominated Monday and Tuesday by Democratic Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn's hearings on the ban on gays in the military.

Senator Nunn wielded the focus of the national press like a flashlight, training it on Norfolk Navy Base on Monday and then on Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the Gulf war hero who favors upholding the ban. "Nunn knows how Washington works and how to use power here," says Democratic lobbyist Victor Kamber. "Clinton is still learning how to use power in Washington."

By midweek, some senators were reporting growing support for a Nunn-backed compromise position. Clinton opposes it.

The president has had similar problems rallying both European allies and congressmen behind his tougher Bosnia policy. He moved out ahead of the Europeans and US public opinion in threatening military action, found they were not following, and backed off.

All signs indicate the president would rather steer public attention to other subjects altogether. But his economic plan is also hitting a rough patch on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress are growing assertive in picking at elements in Clinton's energy tax, which is the major revenue raiser in his economic plan.

"I think the administration - never having written a tax bill - doesn't realize that you have to get supporters out there," Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D) of Illinois, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, told reporters Wednesday.

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Even as Mr. Rostenkowski spoke, Clinton was in New York promoting a new confidence-building measure. He proposed putting all the money brought in by the tax increases and saved by the spending cuts in his economic plan into a trust fund dedicated to reducing the deficit.

The idea plays to the greater willingness of the public to raise taxes if the proceeds are dedicated to a clear purpose. It also follows a recent shift in Clinton's rhetoric toward stressing the more conservative side of his plan - the spending cuts and deficit reduction.

Republican leaders are not buying it. Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas called it "just a gimmick.... The American people don't care where new taxes go. They don't want them, period."

The White House has not been winning these rhetorical battles to set the terms of debate lately. Part of his problem is holding the attention of the press.

During the week Clinton proposed his economic plan on Feb. 17, he followed up the speech with four days of campaigning. According to Andrew Tyndall, publisher of the Tyndall Report, which monitors network news coverage, Clinton's plan received "saturation coverage" of 115 minutes out of 312 total minutes of evening news time. But during the next 11 weeks, his plan drew only 94 minutes of coverage, compared with 161 minutes for the health-care task force.

Meanwhile, Republican critics led by Senator Dole won the battle to define the stimulus package not as a jobs bill - as Clinton would have it - but as a spending measure.

"I don't think people understand whatever Clinton is thinking. He has no clear message," says political scientist George Edwards III of Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. With a lot of ideas and no clear direction, he says, "you've got a laundry-list presidency."

Clinton is widely criticized both for lack of sustained attention span and discipline in selling his program to the public, but also for not bringing members of Congress, including key Republicans, along in developing legislation. The White House is still in some respects run like a campaign, reacting day-to-day to events, sometimes aggressively. But a long-term legislative strategy of the kind developed in the Reagan White House is not apparent.

Political scientist Stephen Wayne of Georgetown University sees a crucial lack of political timing in this White House. One key of presidential leadership is to frame an issue for public debate, then wait until it is ripe for action. "They lack political sophistication, the sense of when to strike and what you're supposed to do," he says.

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