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Clinton to fire back at Bush in convention address

President's role is to step away from the spotlight

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- President Clinton will focus on Democratic accomplishments and not his personal failings when he addresses the Democratic National Convention on Monday night, aides say -- and he'll then hang up his hat as the party figurehead, relinquishing that role to Vice President Al Gore.

Clintons
President Clinton, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, and daughter Chelsea arrive in Los Angeles, Friday  

The president and the first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, both are scheduled to address the party convention Monday night, allowing the two of them a significant amount of prime-time exposure -- although Mrs. Clinton is the only one running for office.

Then, for Mr. Clinton, the curtain comes down in many ways. With the opening of Tuesday's convention sessions, Democratic attention will focus on Gore -- Al Gore the presidential candidate; Al Gore the new face of the party; and Al Gore the individual. In Michigan on Tuesday, Clinton is expected to pass the torch to Gore in a symbolic public ceremony.

Clinton's prime time speech

In his Monday address, Clinton plans to attack the Republican opposition on two fronts. He will attempt to solidify the public's more or less favorable view of his domestic and economic achievements, while making a case that Gore must be elected to dispense with several bits of unfinished business on both of those fronts.

In preparing for the speech, Mr. Clinton studied Ronald Reagan's address to the 1988 GOP convention in Houston, where the two-term "great communicator" handed the GOP's reins over to the current Republican nominee's father, former President Bush.

In that address, Reagan rebutted Democratic arguments for "change" by listing the problems he inherited from former President Carter, whom he ousted from office in 1980.

"We are the change," was among the more memorable lines of Reagan's handoff convention address, and Clinton White House aides said Saturday that the thematic challenge was much the same for Clinton .

Aides familiar with the draft of the speech said the president is intent on delivering a forceful rebuttal of accusations leveled two weeks ago at the Republican National Convention that he had "coasted" through and "squandered" his eight years as the nation's chief executive.

GOP nominee George W. Bush, in his acceptance speech in Philadelphia, said Clinton had made no constructive use of his considerable talent and personal charm.

"They had their chance; they have not led," Bush said of Clinton and Gore.

According to some Clinton aides, Clinton will lay out a blueprint of the national turnaround that occurred under his watch. He plans to make mention of the taming of the record deficit he inherited from the administration of Bush's father in 1992, and how that deficit became an ever-expanding budget surplus.

The aides said Clinton will also highlight sharp reductions in the unemployment rate; the creation of some 22 million new jobs; the halving of national welfare rolls; and the creation of a new child health insurance program intended to provide coverage to millions of poor children.

"He is not of the view that the past eight years have been squandered or that he has coasted, and he's looking forward to the chance to offer a different perspective," one senior aide said.

The speech then "pivots," the aide continued, to a reminder of remaining challenges, including major legislative priorities Clinton has not managed to get through the Republican-controlled Congress. Among those: the so-called patients' bill of rights -- which would bolster the legal rights of individuals in dealings with their health maintenance organizations -- and a new prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients.

Clinton will provide "direct reasons and examples" of why he believes Gore and his vice presidential choice, Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, are more in step with the views of working class families than the GOP ticket of Bush and former defense secretary Dick Cheney, several aides said.

In this portion of his speech, the president plans to deliver a personal testimonial about the vice president and his leadership role in the administration.

Gore's tightrope

But Gore faces challenges of his own on that front.

His associations with Clinton, observers and advisors alike are saying, are doing him great damage. His double-digit deficit to Bush in many national polls can arguably be traced to Clinton's devastating dalliance with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, the ensuing impeachment drama, and the resultant calls from conservative quarters for a restoration of "honor and dignity" to the White House.

Clinton made a stab last Thursday at cleansing Gore of the misfortune of association, telling an audience in South Barrington, Illinois, that the vice president was in no way responsible for his moral fall from grace.

"He doesn't get enough credit for what we did together that is good, and surely no fair-minded person would blame him for any mistake that I made," Clinton told a gathering of 4,500 ministers just outside of Chicago.

Gore and Lieberman
The Democrats' political fortunes in 2000 depend on Gore, left, and his running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, capturing the spotlight at the Democratic National Convention  

Clinton and Gore have both long insisted that Gore deserves just as much credit as Clinton has received for the booming economy and increased rate of job creation brought about in the course of the president's eight-year tenure.

Gore, Clinton has said -- and will likely say again Monday -- has been perhaps the most participatory vice president in the nation's history. He has served as a close advisor and policy drafter in the White House, Clinton has reported, and has wielded significant intellect and influence in the shaping of administration economic and social policies.

But even the Gore organization wants to keep a lid on the Lewinsky issue and Clinton's expressions of regret and spiritual rebirth.

In Pennsylvania on Friday, Gore told Fox News that he appreciated the gesture on Clinton's part, but hinted that it probably wasn't necessary at this crucial moment in the life of his campaign.

"He's said it before," Gore said. "I think that he also went on to say that this election, as all elections, is about the future and not the past and I very much agree with that."

But Gore's communication's director Mark Fabiani expressed exasperation Friday with the president's remarks, calling his resurrection of the issue -- well intentioned as it may have been -- a "distraction."

"We need to stay focused on the positive Gore message. We can't be distracted by things that are out of our control," Fabiani said.

The importance of being unobtrusive

Clinton may quickly learn a valuable lesson in the wake of this latest bit of soul baring -- a lesson similar to one meted out to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the Georgia Republican who on occasion was overcome by the urge to ask forgiveness for his personal shortcomings, much to the chagrin of many of his GOP brethren.

In Gingrich's 1998 book, "Lessons Learned the Hard Way," the then-speaker sought to provide a candid account of the things he had learned about political conduct, working with others, and about himself, in his first two and a half years as head of the House Republican majority.

The book was apologetic at points. In its pages, Gingrich rehashed portions of his lengthy battles with the House ethics committee and his early efforts as a backbencher to oust former Democratic Speaker Jim Wright, and he expressed regret for complaining publicly about being made to exit from the rear of Air Force One after a trip to the Middle East. Gingrich said he had many regrets, and might have conducted himself differently in some circumstances.

Clinton
President Clinton contemplates a response during an interview with Senior Pastor Bill Hybels at the annual Leadership Summit in South Barrington, Illinois, Thursday  

Cut to later that year: The Republicans are nearly routed in mid-term elections, losing a hearty chunk of their majority in the lower chamber. Gingrich is targeted from within and without as a problem -- and some of his once loyal deputies are caught plotting to oust him from power, with some grumbling about Gingrich's sudden soul-baring. At the end of the year, Gingrich relinquishes the speakership and resigns his House seat, taking the fall for the Republicans stunning defeat at the polls.

While Clinton doesn't stand to lose his office prior to the January inauguration of the next president, he appears to be prepared to to take a page from Gingrich's book of experiences. Clinton's Monday night speech, White House sources said Saturday, will most likely make no reference to the debacle. The draft circulating Saturday included no such passages.

And, while Clinton engages in some of his favorite activities in Southern California in the two days leading to his convention appearance -- most notably a series of Hollywood fund-raisers for his wife and his presidential library -- he'll have to keep quiet about his personal opinion of Bush, whose father he trounced in 1992.

Speaking at a New England fund-raiser on the eve of the Republican National Convention two weeks ago, Clinton mocked the younger Bush as a child of privilege. His remarks were coolly received across the political spectrum, and piped down for a time -- until Friday night, when he changed his tact and hit Republicans on their contention that the Democrats had no hand in the nation's economic boom.

"You know, I remember when they were in office and in charge of economic policy for 12 years, they took credit if the sun came up." Clinton said at a fund-raiser for Democratic Congressman Xavier Bacerra. "Now they want you to believe it all just happened by accident. I have no ideas where all these jobs came from."