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Clinton's Moment of Reckoning

The president pursues strategy of contrition and focusing on issues to resurrect standing

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Bill Clinton's career is a history of return from crises that would have buried a less determined politician. Now, as he faces the darkest hours of his public life, he will need every ounce of his famed comeback skill to avoid being cast out of office into the wilderness of ex-presidential disgrace where Richard Nixon long wandered.

Contrition may well be the most important part of Mr. Clinton's current strategy, say experts and former administration aides. Specifically, if he cannot convince congressional Democrats that he is truly sorry for what he has wrought, Clinton may see support from his own party crumble. Democratic leaders already worry privately that pessimism and despair about the upcoming election are racing through their ranks.

Definition will likely be another aspect of the White House defense. Once details of independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report become public - which could happen as early as today - Clinton allies will begin the spin battle to define and shape public opinion as to what the whole controversy is about.

Recognition of the dangers of the situation might be a final aspect of Clinton's actions. The president's attempts to project an image of business-as-usual, by promoting his school agenda and other agenda items, has become "almost a parody," says Clinton's ex-chief of staff Leon Panetta.

But after a period of self-denial, Clinton may now see where he must devote his energies. "When the torpedo's coming at you, you can't worry where the chairs are located," says Panetta.

The contrition part of the defense strategy was in operation even before Mr. Starr dispatched his 36 boxes of documents and supporting material to Capitol Hill in a surprise move on Wednesday afternoon.

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