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Clinton Turning The Tables Cornered By Gop Victories, President Goes On The Attack

His opponents in Congress are slashing his favorite programs to ribbons, three of his Cabinet officers are battling charges of improper conduct and he trails most Republican presidential candidates in the polls.

So why does Bill Clinton look so pleased these days?

Because after weeks of spinning his wheels, the president and his aides think they’ve finally found a strategy to turn the tables on their GOP adversaries: Embrace the advantages of being in opposition, draw some clear lines in the sand and paint the Republican congressional leadership as dangerous extremists.

Gone is the solicitous, bipartisan Clinton who promised - however improbably - to seek common ground with House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. In his place is a fiery, newly partisan president who denounces the Republican budget-cutting program as a heartless assault on the nation’s children.

“What they want to do is make war on the kids of this country to pay for a capital gains tax cut,” Clinton thundered at a news conference Friday. “And the people will figure that out.”

Among White House strategists, the watchwords are “contrast issues”: If Clinton can’t get his own policies through Congress, at least he can make sure the voters know where he disagrees with the Republicans.

As a result, the last few weeks have seen Clinton raising issues he says he will fight for: a higher minimum wage, federal funding for more police, federal aid to education, gun control and abortion rights.

“Part of the president’s strategy now is to say, ‘Hell, no.’ There are some things he’s going to stand firm on,” one senior aide said.

As a result, a chief executive long accused of wobbly indecision suddenly looks more resolute. Even his decision to stick with his embattled nominee for surgeon general, Dr. Henry W. Foster Jr., is now counted by White House aides as a net plus - for even if Foster loses, Clinton will have reinforced the GOP’s image as a party that wants to restrict abortion rights.

Whatever the cause, Clinton already is taking comfort in the polls. A Times Mirror survey last month found that 55 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of the president, up from 51 percent at the end of 1994. Both of those polls had a margin of error of 3 percentage points. Other surveys have registered similar upticks.

More impressive is the judgment of the president’s political adversaries. “I think he has come back to life,” said Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. “He’s like Lazarus. He’s alive now, and he wasn’t before.

Clinton’s pledges to fund 100,000 police officers and to maintain federal aid to education are only two of the points the president has hammered at. He has also threatened to veto any Republican attempts to overturn last year’s ban on some assault weapons, to cut the Head Start program for children, or to eliminate his favored National Service Program.

When the House acted to turn the federally funded school lunch program into block grants for the states, Clinton staged a media event built around a bottle of ketchup - to remind voters that the Reagan Administration once declared ketchup a vegetable for school lunch purposes. The GOP program would “take food out of the mouths of millions of needy schoolchildren,” White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta charged.

And when a House committee voted to give states the option of ending Medicaid funding for abortions in cases of rape, incest or a threat to the life of the mother, Clinton gave his spokesman, Mike McCurry, a green light to use some unusually polarizing rhetoric in response. “This is just a back-alley approach to taking away a woman’s right to choose,” he charged, adding that its GOP sponsors were “19th-century kind of guys.”

The president’s defense of Foster was less premeditated. Aides admit that they gave some thought to dropping the nominee when questions arose over how many abortions he had performed as an obstetrician. But they soon realized that if they could turn the nomination into a fight over abortion rights, they could reopen the debate over the most unpopular plank in the 1992 Republican platform: its anti-abortion stance.

It worked. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., in grudging tribute, complained that Clinton was trying to “make abortion an issue to divide Republicans.”

The Foster case also illustrates what might be called the luxury of opposition. With Republicans in control of Congress, their positions - not Clinton’s - are the center of public debate. Last year, Clinton proposed a health care reform bill, and the GOP attacked it as excessive; this year, the Republicans are doing the proposing, and the Democrats can criticize the weak points.

“The traditional rhetoric of American politics is that Democrats are big spenders and Republicans are hardhearted,” noted Eddie Mahe, a veteran GOP strategist. “We won last year by saying they were big spenders. They’re doing pretty well at the moment saying we are hardhearted.”

The other, unexpected benefit that the Clinton camp has discovered is some welcome new attention to programs the president is proud of. “The media never noticed National Service until Gingrich announced he wanted to kill it,” one White House aide said.

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