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Late Summer Offensive Ties Clinton Presidency To Success of Two Bills

FOR Bill Clinton, the late summer legislative press-out has become a high-wire act of gasp-inducing stumbles and dramatic recoveries.

The crime bill was brought back from the brink in the House with the all-out exertions of President Clinton over a 10-day stretch ending Aug. 21. This week, it returned to the Senate, and another brink.

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The gamble Mr. Clinton is taking this fall is in linking his fortunes so tightly and publicly to a couple of bills - crime and health care - that are tough sells in Congress.

Within the White House, some see the president's strenuous exertions to save the crime bill as a better outcome than if it had been easy. Since he pulled out a win in the House, and a bipartisan win at that, his visible efforts link more closely to its success.

Will it strengthen his hand in the far higher-stakes health-care game?

Probably not, according to political operatives and experts. But in small measure the crime-bill fight has given him two things he needs.

* 1: It has moved Congress closer to ultimate approval of a crime bill that will offer its mostly Democratic supporters a potent campaign issue this fall.

* 2: It has given Mr. Clinton an opportunity to add a sliver to his stature by taking a strong stance in a clutch situation and succeeding.

``In the long run, it's a big win for him,'' says Democratic consultant Keith Frederick, whose firm is advising congressional candidates.

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The elements of the bill - from life in prison for three-time violent felons to more police and more prisons - make potent campaign issues that Mr. Frederick is already using in campaigns, he says.

``My gut tells me that Clinton has been helped a lot,'' says Al From, director of the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization of moderate and conservative Democrats.

In the process, says Mr. From, Clinton has given a boon to his party on the crime issue - an issue that has damaged the Democrats politically for more than a generation.

``I think he has radically improved the Democrats' image on this issue,'' he says.

The elements of the crime bill that From cites, like Frederick, are the tough enforcement elements. But Frederick says his opinion polls in congressional districts indicate that people support a dual approach with both punishment and the crime prevention more traditionally associated with Democrats. The bill is roughly split between the two approaches.

The political impact of the crime bill's progress for Clinton himself would be easy to exaggerate. But if it is slight, it is arguably in a beneficial direction.

``Clinton needs to stand for something'' to add to his presently low presidential stature, says political scientist Stephen Wayne of Georgetown University in Washington. ``The sense you get is of a president who blows with the wind.''

Clinton stood his ground on the crime bill, giving up about 10 percent of the dollar size of the bill over the 10-day negotiation, but holding to some key, controversial elements such as the ban on 19 assault weapons.

Yet the political reality is that few Americans are likely to note Clinton's crime-bill exertions.

``Even though he put himself on the line and was very forceful and articulate,'' says public opinion expert Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute, it happened in August, when few people are paying attention to politics anyway, and the bill passed the House over a weekend.

``The average person has absolutely no clue about what's in that crime bill,'' says Claibourne Darden, a pollster based in Atlanta. As for Clinton's hanging tough on the bill, ``they don't even know it, and they're not going to know it.''

BUT Clinton is likely to get some credit from the public for getting the bill through, Mr. Darden says.

A defeat in the Senate could reverse that. As of this writing, the Senate was not close to voting on the bill.

Americans, when asked, want to see a crime bill passed.

Earlier this month, a Gallup poll for CNN and USA Today found that a majority of Americans would be angry if Congress failed to pass a crime bill this session.

Yet a plurality would be relieved if health-care reform was put off until next year.

On the other hand, the crime bill battles the general American skepticism that federal programs make any difference. Mr. From of the DLC says that the bill's grants to help local departments hire 100,000 additional police are the kind of concrete step that can inspire confidence.

Eddy Mahe, a Republican campaign consultant who has watched the crime-bill fight from the road in Montana, is not convinced that it has helped Clinton at all.

The late-night and weekend House sessions ``smelled like back-room deals,'' he says. ``It was Clinton up to his old tricks.''

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