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Cautious Hope at the White House

Clinton's team is buoyed by public opinion but knows dangers still lie ahead.

Are the worst of the Lewinsky gales over for the White House? Or is a resurgent Clinton team simply operating in that deceptively calm place that's the eye of the storm?

Certainly a reenergized White House is more confident than it's been in months, drinking in the life-giving polls that show 65 percent of Americans believe Bill Clinton should finish his term.

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The sense among President Clinton's aides is that the most damaging of the Starr allegations and evidence have been released, and that their impact is not fatal.

"It's like an asteroid that's smaller than people expected, or even a near miss," says Jim Kennedy, a White House spokesman.

Mr. Clinton's reinforced anti-impeachment team, meanwhile, is up and running, joined by a group of outside advisers consisting of former members of Congress and the White House staff and Democratic lawyers and pollsters.

But Mr. Kennedy downplays the confident mood, explaining, "there's a cautious sense of optimism. We're realists here - it's never wise to predict the future."

The caution is well-founded. Dangers ahead include November's midterm congressional elections and the expectation that conservative Republicans will turn out with enough strength to hand significant gains to the GOP. Meanwhile, the White House still has a challenge in uniting Democrats on the Hill behind Clinton.

Add to that the likelihood that the House will vote next month to start impeachment hearings - as opposed to a quick process that ends with a mere presidential censure. Then there's the possibility that the hearings could expand to include other alleged Clinton-administration wrongs, though that seems less probable at the moment.

Given the history of surprises in this case and the unknowns ahead, "any developments on a day-to-day basis, or even a week-to-week basis, count little," advises Viet Dinh, a Georgetown University law professor and former member of the Senate Whitewater Committee.

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Still, White House insiders and outsiders consider last week a turning point of sorts, especially the videotape of the president's grand-jury testimony.

Certainly, the testimony illustrated the persuasiveness of the orator-in-chief. The president took control from the outset, and kept it. He used questions of specificity to launch into soliloquies of context. His parsing aside, the tapes had the effect of making Clinton sound "very human, very reasonable," says presidential historian Martha Joynt Kumar.

After the videotape was aired, the president's job-approval ratings bounced back. The positive reaction was partly a result of the public having been set up to expect the worst - thanks to White House and congressional political machines set on the spin cycle.

Also last week, the White House anti-impeachment forces had an opportunity to comb the 3,000-plus pages of testimony and documents related to Monica Lewinsky that was released by the House Judiciary Committee. They looked for, and found, details that enabled them to paint independent counsel Kenneth Starr as the bad guy, overzealous in his questioning of Ms. Lewinsky and biased in reporting her testimony.

POLITICAL and legal analysts disagree on the value of these findings, but as the Judiciary Committee continues to release the boxes of raw material supplied by Mr. Starr, the White House will have more opportunities to publicize parts that will help the president's case. Later this week, for instance, Congress will dump tens of thousands more pages, followed by the controversial audio tapes of Linda Tripp's conversations with Lewinsky - though portions of both will be excised.

For a president who's never quit yet when boxed in a corner, time often enters into his calculations of survival. If he just keeps at it long enough, the reasoning goes, something will work for him.

Just a week ago, it looked as if time may have run out. A Newsweek poll showed 46 percent of Americans wanted the president to resign.

But now, with the public behind him and wanting him to keep on with the nation's business, he seems to have been given a new lease on his presidency, however temporary it may be.

The hope at the White House is that sooner or later Congress will have to respond to the American people. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll taken after the videotape release last week, 53 percent of Americans said they would be satisfied if no action were taken against the president and the matter dropped. If hearings drag into the next session of Congress, says Ms. Kumar, "the public won't stand for it."

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