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His Support Surging, President Opts for Silence

Approval rating hits historic high as Clinton stays focused on his social and economic agenda.

The White House switchboard put the call through to the small inner core of Oval Office staff.

"This is Kevin Spacey," said the star of "L.A. Confidential" from a cell phone as he sped along the Pacific Coast Highway near Malibu, Calif., the roar of the open convertible distorting his voice.

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"You tell the president we are with him!" said the Hollywood actor in a gesture of support, apparently representative of how many Americans feel.

Even veteran White House advisers and the president are shocked at how far the pendulum of support has swung in their favor. One short week ago, pundits predicted allegations that President Clinton was involved in an 18-month sexual relationship with former intern Monica Lewinsky, and then persuaded her to lie to investigators, would lead to his undoing.

But in the past seven days, the administration has gone from backs-to-the-wall despair to "pinch me I must be dreaming." With a Newsweek poll showing his approval rating perched at a historic 70 percent high, aides say that Mr. Clinton is personally buoyed and is firmly committed to a long-term strategy of silence.

The initial shock of the allegations have been blunted, in part by a passionate defense of her husband by the Hillary Clinton, who called independent counsel Kenneth Starr "a politically motivated prosecutor." Administration officials now say that the stonewalling tactic is working.

Some political analysts agree. "If he gave the golden press conference, he would look bad, like he was trying to justify behavior," says Joanna Ciulla, a professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond, in Virginia.

"Look at the structure of the problem. There are no good guys in the whole thing. Every character is tainted," she points out.

Moreover, in the absence of an immediate public outcry for his side of the story, going before reporters to discuss sexual-misconduct allegations would only jeopardize the legal underpinnings of his legal defense, officials argue.

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The White House plans a busy week that will keep the focus off the accusations and on the president's agenda. Today's official events will highlight priorities of the newly released budget. Tomorrow, the president travels to New Mexico. At week's end, he'll host a rare state dinner for British Prime Minister Tony Blair, culminating in the first serious test of the "zippered-lip" strategy.

On Friday., the two are scheduled to meet reporters in a joint news conference, the first time Clinton will face a large gathering of the press since the controversy began.

The "name, rank, and serial number only" approach the president is expected to take at that gathering will work, according to Ciulla, because the press is focused on the story not the public. "I think he is also banking on the short-term memory of the public," she says.

For Washington, there is an unusual lack of leaks coming out of the administration. The tight circle of White House insiders who really know what, if anything, happened between Clinton and Ms. Lewinsky may be limited to fewer than a half-dozen people including the attorneys handling the case.

Top administration officials speaking for the president, including White House spokesman Mike McCurry, have been criticized for their lack of information. "Most of the time, I feel like I'm double-parked in the no-comment zone," Mr. McCurry joked to reporters last Friday in an effort to defuse press corps frustration.

In a further effort to distance the White House from the controversy and remove it as a topic from McCurry's daily press briefings, the political response team has been contracted out. Former White House strategist Karen Hancox is heading the team, operating out of an office at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. She is providing responses and a focused countermessage to Democratic supporters across the country.

And the rest of the story?

But the question remains, how long will the American public wait to hear Clinton's side of the story?

Republicans watching the president's momentum build hope it will be sooner rather than later. They are ramping up a counteroffense, firing salvos in what is likely to be a week of attacks on personal ethics.

Prompted by party conservatives angry at the lack of GOP response to the allegations, high-profile conservatives and lawmakers, including Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi, are making the president's character an issue.

"The moral sensibilities of this man ... have led us downhill. He has winked at us and his own behavior," said William Bennett, co-director of Empower America in remarks to the Conservative Political Action Conference. "If he is found out and forced out he will have nothing but disgrace," continued Mr. Bennett, whose brother, Richard Bennett, is one of the president's attorneys.

Growing moral outcry

William Bennett and other conservatives are counting on an eventual outcry from the public for specifics in the case.

"I think it is very dangerous to assume the public has infinite patience," say Jack Holmes, a political science professor at Hope College in Holland, Mich.

"People have high standards. As this settles down, I'm not sure it's going to go away as the other things went away. The short-term damage control could lead to long-term damage," he predicts.

"Sooner or later he is going to have to answer some specific questions," says John Zogby, president of the Zogby International polling firm in Utica, N.Y.

But the demand is not likely to be created by Republican attacks, he predicts. "The weakest chink in his [Clinton's] armor are the Republicans. They have entered into ill-timed confrontations with him in the past and looked about as bad as a political group can look. They can't land a punch right now while his [polling] numbers are going up," he says.

"The issue becomes what is the next bombshell and when will it come out, and how will he respond to it," Mr. Zogby says.

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