Reaction To Starr's Report: Which Way Will It Swing?
By Karen Foerstel, CQ Staff Writer
(CQ, July 11) -- It is the ticking time bomb of the election year. The much-awaited report of Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr could either douse Democrats' flickering hopes of capturing the House and holding their own in the Senate -- or it could backfire on Republicans by angering voters who feel the report is nothing more than a witch hunt.
Democrats and Republicans are treading lightly when it comes to the Starr report, knowing it could be a powerful election-year tool. While issues such as education, health care and gun control have cropped up in some individual races, the potential impact of the Starr report looms large on the national stage.
But at least one observer says the report could lose its sting if it largely ignores other issues such as Clinton's Whitewater land deal and the White House travel office firings, and instead focuses mainly on the alleged affair between Clinton and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
"If it's basically focused on Lewinsky, it will trigger a significant backlash against Starr. The American people are quite decided they don't think sexual affairs are an impeachable offense," said former Clinton consultant Dick Morris, who resigned in 1996 amid revelations of an affair with a prostitute.
Tim Hibbitts, an independent pollster in Oregon and Washington, said the one wild card in the elections is the Clinton investigation. In recent elections in the Northwest, he said, the margin of victory has often come down to about 2 to 3 percent points. He said a Starr report could be enough to swing the vote.
"The shift of 2 to 3 percent could be damaging for Republicans if it's seen as a partisan witch hunt. We could wind up with a couple of more Democrats. If Starr has something compelling, the Democrats could be put in a bad situation," Hibbitts said.
If the report is broader, Morris said, "Democrats would dismiss it at their own peril."
Also a factor is the timing of the report. Starr spokesman Charles Bakaly recently ruled out an interim report but did not rule out the possibility of a final report later this summer.
Any time after that could be as damaging as 1992's version of October Surprise, when Iran-contra Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh, just four days before the election, released information damaging to President George Bush's re-election and indicted Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger on charges of lying to Congress.
Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he expects a report before the Nov. 3 elections. Hyde's panel would hold possible impeachment hearings.
"I just don't think Starr would have spent all this time and money [if it weren't coming out soon]," Hyde said.
But even if the report is issued this summer, Congress is not likely to have enough time to act before the elections. Hyde said his committee's investigation of Starr's charges could push any impeachment hearings past November.
Most observers agree that the more time that passes before a report, the less the impact. It would probably benefit Democrats to drag out congressional action.
A long study period also would give political leaders a chance to weigh public opinion.
"The longer it goes, the more people build up a tolerance," said GOP strategist Frank Luntz. "We can predict if the report comes out, it will be devastating, but because expectations are that it will be devastating, it may not have as much impact."
Indeed, Clinton's approval ratings have remained high, at or above 60 percent during the first half of 1998.
Starr's approval rating, on the other hand, has plummeted. A June 25 NBC poll showed that 50 percent of those surveyed have little confidence in any report from Starr. Another 55 percent blamed Starr -- not Clinton -- for dragging out the investigation.
"Kenneth Starr's approval rating is lower than Saddam Hussein's," said Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC).
Starr has spent more than $35 million in four years investigating Clinton. The president also faces probes by Congress into charges of improper Democratic fundraising. Ten separate committees are examining charges that Clinton may have jeopardized national security and allowed sensitive technology transfers to China.
Rep. John Linder, R-Ga., chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee, said those investigations may have a greater impact than the Starr report.
"It all depends on what the report says -- if it's an open-and-shut case or if it's ambiguous," Linder said.
In a sign that the Starr investigation may not be a winning issue, several congressional candidates have raised the subject in their primary races -- and lost.
Democrat Bobby Russell, who sought the nomination in Kentucky's 6th District, ran TV ads calling Starr's probe "just plain wrong." Russell came in fourth in the six-way primary.
Nate Coulter, a Democrat who ran for the nomination to replace retiring Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., pushed a plan to limit the "unfettered power" of independent counsels such as Starr. He also lost his primary.
In Utah, conservative Republicans tried to use the Starr investigation against one of their own. Rep. Christopher B. Cannon, R-Utah, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, faced a primary challenge from Jeremy Friedbaum, who had the backing of conservatives who said Cannon had been unable to force impeachment hearings against Clinton. Cannon won the nomination with more than 75 percent.
Luntz predicted the most damaging result of a Starr report would be voter apathy.
"I cannot imagine voters casting their ballots for a Republican Senate candidate because of Bill Clinton's behavior. But I can imagine Democratic voters staying home because of embarrassment," he said.
Some local GOP leaders are beginning to prepare for Starr's report.
Rusty Paul, chairman of the Georgia Republican Party, said he probably will try to use a report against Democrat Michael Coles, who is challenging GOP Sen. Paul Coverdell. Clinton attended a Coles fundraiser July 9, and Paul said he would try to link a negative Starr report to White House backing for Coles' candidacy.
Paul said Democrats also have struggled to recruit good candidates in Georgia. Two House candidates pulled out of their races in late January, just weeks after the Lewinsky charges hit the headlines. Neither candidate cited the scandal as their reason for dropping out.
"The Democrats have been so demoralized," Paul said.
But he acknowledged Republicans will have to walk a thin line between using a Starr report successfully and overplaying their hand.
"Republicans will be somewhat cautious. . . . We have to look balanced and fair," Paul said.
Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman issued a similar warning to both parties. "The American voters are likely to say, a plague on both houses," Hickman said. "Sometimes things work to everybody's disadvantage."
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