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How Clinton Hangs In: Voters Simply Look at Alternatives

Take a trip across the country and talk with people and you can readily come up with some clear impressions about the state of the presidency.

First and foremost, no real hostility toward the president is bubbling to the surface. The public certainly isn't cheering loudly for President Clinton. Indeed, his high ratings in the polls would appear to break down to no more than two cheers and often one cheer for the president.

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It seems that just about everyone sees Mr. Clinton as a bit of a scamp. But they seem willing to put up with his peccadillos - if they, indeed, exist. At least the people I talked to - even those who were most critical of Clinton - weren't expressing hopes of his impeachment.

This doesn't mean Clinton is fully escaping public ire. But I am able to contrast the public's reactions to Whitewater and the many other accusations of wrongdoing against Clinton, more recently the Lewinsky charges, with their response to Nixon's involvement in Watergate. On my trips around the US back then I found widespread hostility to Nixon. Indeed, a strong majority of those I talked to were, even well before the "smoking gun" revelations in the tapes, judging him guilty and desiring that he be put out of office.

Oh, yes, Nixon had his die-hard defenders. But they were a precious few. His support in the polls dropped to about 20 percent. One poll at the time ran George McGovern against Nixon in a straw vote, and the South Dakotan who had been overwhelmed by the Nixon landslide in 1972 was a big victor in this rematch.

So as I sit at my typewriter (yes, this veteran journalist still sticks with his old Royal) I am left with the question that puzzles most observers: Why are Clinton's performance ratings remaining so high?

Well, the easy answer and one you will usually hear is that the president simply is being given credit for the buoyant economy.

But I'm coming to believe that while it is very true that Clinton is benefiting from a public that is basking in prosperity, there is another reason for Americans to at least appear to be satisfied with their president:

For some time now I've been hearing people express their support for Clinton and then add something along this line: "But I don't see if he were replaced, we would be better off."

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A justice of a state supreme court put it this way: "People just don't see any better alternative to Clinton. That's what is holding him up - not the economy."

A housewife, whose husband is in the "space program," told me that she was "very troubled" with Clinton.

"But I don't know much about Gore, and I can't see that the Republicans have much to offer. That's how Clinton has won - the Republicans had weak candidates."

This "no-alternative" theory makes sense to me. I'm convinced that this scandal-plagued president would likely prevail today if pitted against any of the Republicans who are beginning to look hopefully at the year 2000.

Clinton can't run again. But battered as he is, this hard-working and much-traveling president - who hardly misses a day of doing something or saying something on national TV - would be hard to beat if he ran today against any of the current crop of GOP prospects.

The truth of the matter is that the Republicans haven't come up with a truly exciting candidate in some time.

Young George Bush might be that candidate. Or maybe someone else might emerge. Dan Quayle? Hardly. Steve Forbes? Did you say "exciting"? Colin Powell had the right stuff. But he won't run.

Anyway, I am coming to think that it's when the voters look at the alternatives that Clinton's grip on the presidency grows tighter.

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