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This Fall: Electing Clinton Jury

Big pickup by GOP in House and Senate could impact a Clinton impeachment vote.

For President Clinton, this fall's elections are shaping up to be more than a plebiscite on his character. They could be a matter of political life and death.

The electorate, in effect, will select the jury for any impeachment proceedings that Congress holds. In the House, a simple majority of votes is needed to impeach Mr. Clinton. In the Senate, a two-thirds majority - 67 votes - is needed to convict and remove the president from office.

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Republicans are widely expected to pick up seats in the House. The question now is: Will it be enough to sway any possible impeachment vote? Only a week ago, Democratic strategists were glumly calculating the damage that the sex scandal would have on party turnout and vote counts.

Now, these strategists are seeing the beginnings of a possible backlash against Republicans. Reports are filtering in that some GOP voters are unhappy with the way that the Republican-controlled Congress has handled the Starr report and the videotape of Clinton's grand-jury testimony.

To be sure, Democrats have given up hope that they can pick up the 12 seats needed to retake control of the House. Regaining the Senate, currently 55 to 45 in favor of the Republicans, was never considered realistic. But now, Democrats see a way to avoid being steamrolled.

As always, the close races are the ones to watch. Take Pennsylvania's 13th Congressional District, a seat that Republican Jon Fox has won twice with less than 50 percent of the vote.

A week ago, Pennsylvania Democratic campaign strategist Ken Smukler couldn't imagine how Clinton's woes could help his candidate, Joe Hoeffel, who is Mr. Fox's opponent in the election race.

But Mr. Smukler says that once the House Judiciary Committee screened Clinton's grand-jury testimony, "I could imagine a backlash scenario [against Republicans] that would help Joe."

"It's very similar to the backlash argument that helped Democrats in the 96 election, after the shutdown of the federal government, just in the sense that the Republicans overplayed their hand in a very partisan way," Smukler adds.

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With more than five weeks to go before the vote, though, it's too soon to say if this backlash scenario will play out. It's also possible, analysts warn, that the Democrats could misplay any anti-GOP backlash and suffer a secondary backlash. In close races, the name of the game is caution.

Rep. Fox has played it so safe, he says he hasn't even read more than a few paragraphs of the Starr report, according to the latest news reports. Hoeffel has called for a censure of Clinton, for now the safe Democratic position.

Ultimately, the core threat to the Democrats remains: that their voters will feel discouraged by Clinton and sit home on Nov. 3, while energized Republicans will still turn out - particularly the activist, religious conservative wing of the party. The Clinton scandal plays to that wing's central issue, morality in government.

Data from independent pollster John Zogby also don't bode well for Democratic hopes of an anti-GOP backlash. While likely voters polled Sept. 22 gave congressional Republicans negative marks for their handling of the Lewinsky matter - 65 percent said it was fair or poor - congressional Democrats scored even lower, with 70 percent at fair or poor.

Earlier this month, the extensive "battleground" poll produced by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake and Republican Ed Goeas showed expectations of lower turnout among senior citizens and white working women, two groups that Democratic candidates, such as California Sen. Barbara Boxer, need to win close races.

For Democrats who are trailing, such as Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, low voter turnout among those groups could mean political demise. The same could apply for other Democratic Senate incumbents in races that have tightened up, such as in South Carolina and Nevada.

For now, the public is ambivalent about Clinton. Polls show people believe he committed a crime and that he's responsible for the ordeal the nation is going through, but they haven't reached the point where they want him out. "It's very delicate for both sides," says political analyst William Schneider. "We're not seeing signs of a landslide."

Still, Republicans entertain visions of a rerun of 1974, the post-Watergate Democratic landslide, and the 1994 Republican sweep. In races where Republican challengers have only a long-shot chance of defeating an incumbent, some GOP strategists argue that they should make Monica Lewinsky an issue, because they have nothing to lose.

"They should ask their opponents how they'll vote on an impeachment inquiry," says Rich Galen of GOPAC, a group that coaches conservative Republican candidates. "They'll get press, and they'll get into the rhythm of the conversation."

BUT Democrats warn that the current mess isn't a precise mirror image of 1974. Back then, the Watergate investigation wasn't subject to the kind of scrutiny that Mr. Starr's probe is undergoing today, notes Jonathan Brown, a campaign aide for the Wisconsin Democratic House candidate Lydia Spottswood. This week, the Office of the Independent Counsel released a statement saying the tapes made by anti-Clinton witness Linda Tripp were likely altered, casting a cloud over her credibility.

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