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How Deep Is Clinton's Peril?

With immunity from prosecution deal set for Monica Lewinsky, what is next strategy for the president?

The walls of independent counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation are closing in on Bill Clinton - but they may well stop short of ending his presidency.

Monica Lewinsky, a key witness in the inquiry over possible White House obstruction of justice, has won immunity from prosecution and is reportedly set to testify that she had a sexual relationship with President Clinton.

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More important, reports indicate she's also ready to state that she and Mr. Clinton discussed how they would lie about it, an allegation that opens the way to charges of perjury and suborning perjury against the president.

Clinton himself is now under subpoena to appear before the grand jury, and at press time, his lawyers were in high-stakes negotiations with Mr. Starr's team over when and how the president's testimony would take place.

But as long as Clinton maintains his high job approval with the American public, one of the great political feats of the modern era, he will be hard to touch. At heart, the investigation into possible wrongdoing by the president is no ordinary legal event - it is a possible prelude to impeachment hearings, by definition a political proceeding.

"Clinton's problems are mainly going to be resolved politically, not legally," says Guy Molyneaux, a Democratic pollster. "This will ultimately be litigated in an unusual court - not a normal court, but in the House and then the Senate, if ever."

Mr. Starr is thought to believe that a sitting president may not be indicted, and so his only recourse is to present a report to Congress, which would then decide whether to draft articles of impeachment. The Congress itself would have to define what constitutes "high crimes and misdemeanors," a basis of impeachment.

Congress, for its part, is loath to go after a popular president, especially as the fall midterm elections near and with Republicans leery of doing anything that might cause them to lose their narrow control of the House of Representatives. From the start of the Lewinsky matter, which burst forth in January, key house Republicans have made it clear they won't move to oust Clinton over just anything.

"You don't impeach him for a peccadillo," Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which would handle the Starr report, said six months ago.

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SO the question is, can more information come to light that is big enough to sink the president? And at what point could public opinion turn on Clinton?

In theory, something big could still come out that may ultimately force the president out of the White House. Public discussion about what Starr has in his back pocket - not just on the Lewinsky affair, but also on the range of issues he's investigating that fall under the loose rubric known as Whitewater - is based on speculation and information leaked by Starr's office and sources close to the president.

For now, though, Clinton appears embroiled in a federal case of "he said, she said," not only regarding whether he and Ms. Lewinsky ever had sexual contact but on whether they discussed lying about it. Lewinsky's reported admission that she wrote the "talking points" - the instructions to Lewinsky's former colleague, Linda Tripp, advising her what to say in a deposition for the president's Paula Jones suit - eliminates, if true, the possibility that someone in the White House urged perjury, including the president.

If no evidence comes forth to contradict the reported admission on the talking points, that may be the best news yet for the president. The talking points represent the only known physical evidence, so far, that anyone advised anyone else to lie under oath in this case.

Lewinsky alone can hardly destroy the president, analysts say. "There has to be substantial corroborating evidence," says Mark Rozell of American University, an expert on executive privilege. "The public is not going to turn on the president based on Monica Lewinsky's word. Her credibility is not that strong."

So what could shake the president's approval ratings, which have held steady in the 60 percent range all year? As long as the economy remains strong and the nation is at peace, he will maintain his base of support, analysts say. Polling expert Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute places that base at 34 percent, the slice of American adults who said they "strongly approve" of the president's job performance in a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Still, a big plunge from the 60s to 34 percent would be devastating to the president, and he and his advisers appear mindful that their efforts to stall Starr must fall within the bounds of fair play, so as not to upset public opinion. Clinton wants to avoid testifying as long as he possibly can, but the White House has been indicating that Clinton will likely go ahead and testify, rather than fight the legality of the subpoena in court. Statements by top Democratic congressmen, urging the president to testify, have also constricted Clinton's options over the subpoena.

In the end, Clinton faces two unpleasant choices. Either he holds to his claim that he had no sexual contact with Lewinsky and didn't urge her to lie, a statement the majority of the public doesn't believe. Or he reverses his story, admits to a sexual liaison, and acknowledges that he lied.

Either way, the public is tired of the issue. Some 47 percent would rather Clinton say nothing more about it, according to a recent CBS poll.

But even with the public behind him, the whole matter has dragged the president down and distracted him from his job. As he finishes the third quarter of an eight-year presidency, "this might have made Clinton a lame duck a little earlier" than he otherwise would have been, says a long-time Democratic observer.

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