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Clinton's Priority Issues ail to Excite GOP

President Sounds Own Themes of Responsibility

PRESIDENT Clinton is trying to find common ground with the Republicans by addressing the cultural fragmentation and polarization in the country.

In his speech Tuesday night, White House strategists say he was trying to express a more profound vision of civil health by stressing traditional GOP themes of personal responsibility and ``tough-love'' punishment for those who ignore child support.

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``The president needed to go beyond the political,'' says religious sociologist James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia, whom the White House consulted.

``He needed to appeal to cooperation without which politics is simply war by other means. I think he did so. But whether people can hear this guy, with all the sourness out there and his reputation, is another thing.''

The speech contained some Vaclav Havel transcendance, author Garry Wills's attention to the sacred in American history, and New Age empowerment. It stressed values, rights, and responsibilities:

``Our civil life is suffering in America today. Citizens are working together less and shouting at each other more. The common bonds of community ... are badly frayed.''

Jim Wallis, minister at the Sojourner's Community Center in Washington and author of ``The Soul of Politics,'' noted that: ``What often happens is that Clinton makes good speeches, the Memphis speeches to black churches for example. But it isn't followed with a coherent vision that includes action that means something. We need a new politics with spiritual values. But I fear the waters have been so poisoned by domestic win-lose politics on both sides.''

``I thought the line about assault weapons was Clinton at his best,'' says Steve Long, an ordained minister and professor at Duke University Divinity School.

``He told us that members of Congress had laid down their political lives in the cause of a weapons ban, and that he would see that they didn't do it in vain. What I want to know is -- will he?''

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A number of political analysts say the question now is whether the president can follow through by providing strong Democratic leadership on the hill at a time when Republicans are calling the shots.

None of the social-cultural themes stressed Tuesday is new to Clinton. But he is reviving them from earlier in his presidency and campaign and putting new emphasis on them.

The test for him now is whether the country heard the message or believed it, political observers say.

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