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Clinton Turns His Aura Into Campaign Gold

Despite Starr probe, president gets smiles, cheers, and checks from party faithful

After nine days of dining on Chinese delicacies, it's back to seabass terrine, filet mignon, and pencil-thin asparagus for the president.

That, at least, was the menu at yet another Clinton fund-raiser last night, this time at actor Sylvester Stallone's home in Miami.

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The Democratic fund-raiser, the second in a packed day, illustrates a president pulling in dollars for Democrats at every turn.

Far from being a scandal-tainted liability, as pundits and the press had predicted, the president is in great demand in this midterm election year. This is especially true when it comes to fund-raisers, where President Clinton routinely brings in more than the original goal. (The Stallone dinner, for instance, raised $900,000 - $100,000 more than expected).

In the end, say party officials and political analysts, the president's efforts have saved his party from near bankruptcy, given it the financial means to get its message out to voters, and put Democrats in a far stronger position than in 1994, the last time they faced a midterm election.

Mr. Clinton hopes his efforts will be enough for Democrats to retake the US House this year, a former aide says.

That goal remains a long shot in a year when local issues - not the president - are expected to dominate campaigns. Still, analysts say Clinton's success represents a remarkable turnaround.

In 1994, "there was very little he could do that was helpful" to Democrats, says Thomas Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Clinton's polls were low, he was being hammered by Republicans on health care and crime, and there was a "palpable, public anger" at the president and the federal government.


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It's different this time around. "Each [Clinton] event this year has been a record-breaker for that city," says Olivia Morgan, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which helps Democrats win House seats and put on the Stallone event.

Ms. Morgan confirms that the president is doing more events and raising more money for House Democrats this year than in the 1994 elections. The political conditions are different - presidential approval ratings of more than 60 percent, a healthy economy, and no major crisis. But so is the incentive - a chance, albeit a very slim one, for the Democrats to retake the House if they can win a net 11 seats.

The "president hopes the Democrats can gain control. He believes there's a real chance the Democrats can do better than in other off-year elections," says Leon Panetta, former Clinton chief of staff.

Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which had to return $3 million in questionable donations and expend funds to handle investigations into its fund-raising practices, couldn't be happier.

Party debts

DNC leaders credit Clinton with cutting DNC debt from $15 million to just below $5 million. He has exceeded goals at every DNC fund-raiser this year, raising at least $11.6 million at 20 party events.

"The president's an asset, and the proof of that is in our fund-raising," says Roy Romer, DNC general chairman and Colorado governor.

Governor Romer says that ironically, the Starr investigation and other allegations of wrongdoing have brought small donors out of the woodwork. Angry at the attacks on their man, they are responding with e-mails, letters, and most important, checks. In the first three months of this year, for instance, the DNC pulled in 162,000 contributions (triple 1994's total at this point in the cycle) and $12 million ($2 million more than the last time around).

The other reason the president works so well at fund-raising is because he's so good at it. First, he's still the president, a celebrity draw. And, tainted or not, he has got an uncanny ability to identify with people, making them feel as if they have his undivided attention.

Romer points to Clinton's visit in China as the latest example of the president's people skills. "He still has that ability to relate to what the audience is in front of him, to sense what is on their minds and respond quite intelligently," says Romer.

Still, there's much to check the euphoria of Democrats. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia is also a powerful fund-raiser, and, in many ways, Clinton is energizing the anti-Clintonites in the Republican base. The Starr investigation remains a question mark. And the Democrats can't count on the president to move votes on national issues when this election is shaping up to be one in which local issues count most.

Candidates, says nonpartisan handicapper Stuart Rothenberg, are hardly plastering the president's picture all over their campaigns. "Now the president is a tool for individuals to make money and that's where it ends," he says. "After that, candidates run on much more local issues."

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