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Campaign to paint Starr in warmer colors may be paying off

Independent counsel's 'charm' blitz may boost his standing, but it isn't moving public on impeachment.

He's been labeled a prosecutorial zealot, a McCarthyistic sex cop, a member of a conservative cadre out to bring down President Clinton.

But after months of delivering only terse statements during the daily media ambush outside his home, independent counsel Kenneth Starr is intent on showing America his warm and fuzzy side.

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As Mr. Starr and a few of his deputies make the rounds of TV appearances and grant interviews, anecdotal evidence suggests the charm campaign is paying off.

"When I got to see him, I found him very reasoned and charming," says image expert Bob Garfield, an ad critic for Advertising Age magazine in Washington. "[He was] thoughtfully deliberate and certainly not the wild-eyed lunatic he has been portrayed to be."

The glowing lighting of the TV sets and the casual open-collar shirts may well help to remake Starr's image, perhaps raising his consistently low public-approval ratings a notch or two. But even if that happens, there's no evidence that a more engaging Starr will result in a shift of public opinion toward impeaching the president.

Mr. Garfield says the turning point for Starr may have been the arduous 12-hour session testifying before the House Judiciary Committee on Nov. 19. "When all the favorability ratings are in, his will have gone up," Garfield says.

Starr is staying on message with recurring responses: He didn't ask for the independent counsel job, but he was picked for it by Democrats. He's comfortable with the report he filed. Adherence to the rule of law is his principal goal, not a quest to harpoon a political nemesis.

Most important, perhaps, Starr insists he's no moral crusader. His most aggressive efforts, he says, have been sparked by the need to protect the rule of law.

"There are a lot of themes he's hitting," says Del Ali, senior vice president at Mason-Dixon political/media research. "He wants people to know he is not some wing-nut out to get Bill Clinton."

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In a lengthy talk with celebrity interviewer Diane Sawyer broadcast Nov. 25, Starr acknowledged that his life-long hope for a US Supreme Court seat has probably been dashed by his independent counsel role. Nevertheless, he says he remains dedicated to the rule of law in steering the behemoth his investigation has become.

"There is no excuse for perjury. Never, never, never," he insisted. Appearing on national TV in open collar, he prefaced most answers with warm grins or avuncular chuckles, defusing hard-edged questions.

"There is still a reservoir of curiosity about him," says Michael Johnstone, a political scientist at Colgate College in Hamilton, N.Y. Starr is wise to tap into that because "increasingly we live in a time when people resolve a guy's work by, do we like the guy," he adds.

Also unleashed is Starr spokesman Charles Bakaly III, who since last winter has been reticent to speak to the human side of the Starr team. At the time, Mr. Bakaly said he wouldn't wage rhetorical battles on the Sunday talk shows.

He now believes failure to respond to the White House's attacks and well-crafted messages hurt their cause.

"It's not as if we have thin skins and we don't like to hear bad things about ourselves, but those comments, when not responded to, have a tremendous effect on ... the people who frame public opinion," Bakaly said during a recent breakfast meeting with reporters.

WHILE the Lewinsky matter, the most successful aspect of Starr's long investigation, has failed to persuade a majority of Americans that Clinton should be impeached, Bakaly insists Starr is not out of touch with public opinion. "He doesn't feel that the American people have somehow missed it," Bakaly says of the final report.

Even if Starr is able to remake his image in Washington and across the US, his critics abound - and they do not intend to remain silent.

"I don't think Starr's image could have gotten worse. [Convicted serial killer] John Wayne Gacy could have gotten Starr's 12 percent approval ratings," says Gene Lyons, an Arkansas columnist and author, who insists Starr's probe has been fraught with the kind of prosecutorial abuses that make civil libertarians shudder.

Since descending on Arkansas, Starr's team has harassed and intimidated witnesses, coercing them into making false statements, Mr. Lyons says. He also says it hid exculpatory evidence that would have benefited Clinton and his friends.

"[The Starr team] did everything you expect to be done in Paraguay but the physical abuse," says Lyons, who suggests Starr is one of many in a loose confederacy of Clinton foes. He says Starr's moral convictions drove him to focus on sex, and he frequently reminds that Starr supported wiring Monica Lewinsky to secretly tape the president in the West Wing of the White House. "He's playing Ozzie Nelson with a pipe and a Bible. In his new role he's in a 1950s sitcom, Dad Knows Best, and we are going to repeal the '60s," he says.

However strategic the effort to rehabilitate Starr's image, there is the danger of overexposure. "If I were him and wanted to improve my reputation quickly, complete the charm blitz and go back to your knitting," advises Garfield.

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