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Unofficial Team Throws Punches on the President's Behalf

According to White House aides paid to worry about such matters, the last thing President Clinton wants is for one of his many legal problems to overshadow this weekend's big announcement on healing US racial rifts.

The White House is still stinging from the timing of last month's Supreme Court decision clearing the way for Paula Jones to pursue her civil case against Mr. Clinton. It came as the president attended a NATO summit in Paris and overshadowed Clinton's role as statesman.

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So, in a bid to blunt the effect of scandal charges, the White House has tacitly given freer rein to its most surly surrogates, defenders who are close enough to the president to be seen in his shadow, but who maintain enough distance to keep their bare-knuckle tactics from diminishing his office.

"My mission right now is to give this president a vigorous, vigorous defense," says James Carville, Democratic strategist and longtime Clinton scrapper.

Mr. Carville's criticism of independent counsel Kenneth Starr escalated this week. He accused Mr. Starr of leaking findings from his Whitewater probe to the press and cast him as a partisan "trying to appease his right-wing critics."

Carville also ridiculed Ms. Jones and her conservative attorneys on a nationally syndicated cable program. In an aggressive tone the White House would never officially engage in, he portrayed Jones as an opportunist seeking fame.

Officially, the front-line defense is not sanctioned. Speaking of Carville, deputy press secretary Barry Toiv said, "He doesn't get his marching orders from anywhere near here."

MOREOVER, according to another White House source, there have been no war-room strategy sessions or focused efforts to empower defenders like Carville. But "obviously conversations go back and forth," and friends of the White House "know when the reins have been loosened," the source said.

Recently, former counselor to the president George Stephanopoulos also went to bat for his old boss, writing an essay encouraging the White House to go head to head with Jones in court. In addition, the president's personal lawyer Robert Bennett drew fire for taking a too proactive defense of his client as he vowed to investigate personal details from Jones's past.

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"It backfired," says Dave Mason, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "I think Carville at any given moment presents the same kind of danger.

Charles Wilson, editor of "Character Above All," an examination of past presidents and how they responded to crisis, believes the caustic defense is risky, but farming it out is prudent. "If it's brought into the White House it further diminishes what is already a diminished presidency," he believes.

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