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Under GOP Fire, Clinton Swerves Toward the Right

A HUMBLED President Clinton is moving on all fronts to demonstrate that he got the rightward-pointing message of the last election.

He is putting the White House effort to streamline and reduce the cost of federal government into overdrive, reportedly including the possible obliteration of an entire Cabinet department such as Housing and Urban Development, or Energy.

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He has proposed reversing course on trimming the defense budget by adding about $25 billion to the Pentagon, spread over five years.

On Friday, he fired Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, an associate from Arkansas, for what was only the latest of her controversial statements concerning sex, drugs, and public health.

Each move conforms to the sense of one of the 10 House Republican promises in their ''Contract with America.'' Together, they signal that Mr. Clinton is moving in a Republican direction where he feels he can either find common ground or avoid becoming an easy target on the left.

Mr. Clinton has already shown he can get something done in the new political environment. While the GATT trade-opening agreement, signed last week, was approved by the outgoing, Democratic Congress, it had the sup- port of the new Republicans.

Ironic hope

But the White House is in a deep political hole. What optimism Clinton's aides can find is of the ironic sort. Some note the oddly liberating shift of pressure for performance over to the Republicans in Congress and say the Democratic defeat was so resounding last month that their situation can hardly get worse.

Yet Democrats now seriously question whether the president will salvage his political fortunes to the point of winning renomination in two years.

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A new survey released last week by Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press found that 66 percent of Democratic voters would like to see Clinton challenged for the Democratic nomination in 1996. Andrew Kohut, director of the center, cautions that Democrats do not necessarily want to see Clinton deposed for the nomination, only that 2 of 3 say it should not be an open and shut case.

''If President Clinton a year from now is in the same shape he's in now, it's hard to imagine he would not be challenged,'' says Democratic political consultant Greg Schneiders.

Other presidents have bounced back from positions as bad or worse than Clinton's, and Clinton has a track record of pick-ing himself up. But other presidents have usually recovered with the help of a recovering economy or events abroad. The unusual aspect of Clinton's problem is that without any sharply felt national or international problems, more people disapprove than approve his job performance by 6 percentage points in the Times Mirror Poll.

Mr. Kohut finds that Clinton's problems with voters are less from a perception that he is too liberal -- most see him as a moderate -- but from a perception that he is not getting things done and may not be trustworthy.

''There's a pretty good case in the poll that Clinton's problems are Clinton's problems,'' says Kohut, meaning that they ''have to do with him personally.

Nomination challenges are rarely successful. Franklin Pierce was the last president deposed by his own party. But other presidents, such as Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson, have retired rather than face tough nomination fights and even tougher general election battles.

The most likely scenario for a Clinton challenge within his party would be from the disillusioned Democratic left. Jesse Jackson is considering such a race. New York's Mario Cuomo is also mentioned in Democratic circles.

Such a challenge, however, might actually help Clinton for the general election by underlining his moderate side, notes Democratic consultant Mark Siegel.

On the right, Sen. Robert Kerrey (D) of Nebraska has been discussed as a challenger, but he has said he will not do it. And Mr. Kerrey did not show the discipline and organization in his last presidential campaign that such a daunting task would require, according to Mr. Schneiders.

The Gore scenario

The favorite scenario of some Democrats -- because it may hold the best prospect of victory in 1996 -- is that Clinton will decide relatively soon not to run again, leaving Vice President Al Gore Jr. to lead the ticket. But this scenario assumes more than current political problems for Clinton, no matter how serious. ''That scenario works if he's a target of the [Whitewater] special prosecutor and it looks like he's going to be indicted,'' says Schneiders.

But these are speculations. And voters expect much from congressional Republicans, who offer an alternative target to voters for their remaining discontents two years from now.

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