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Voter Contentment, Wariness of GOP ‘Revolution,’ Worked for Clinton

November 6, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The mold for President Clinton’s victory wasn’t set in the winter Republican primaries, the party conventions, the general election campaign or the televised debates. It was forged on Dec. 16, 1995, in the halls of Congress.

That’s when House Speaker Newt Gingrich refused to strike a budget deal with the White House, triggering a Christmas-season partial shutdown of the federal government.

More Americans blamed the shutdown on the Republicans who controlled Congress than on Clinton.

The president, learning well the lessons of the 1994 midterm elections when Republicans seized both chambers, stood up to Congress and adroitly moved right to lay claim to the political center.

Then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole had nowhere to go. By the time he had moved far enough right to nail down the GOP nomination, it was hard for him to get back to the middle. And Clinton was already there.

Clinton solidified his lead over Dole in public opinion polls after that budget confrontation and never lost it.

Americans weren’t ready for any more revolutions.

Elections are a good barometer of the mood of the country, and the national temper this year has been one of relative contentment _ not the anger needed to fire a president.

Nor did it appear that voters were ready to change control of Congress again, either.

``Dole didn’t dissociate himself early enough or strongly enough from the revolution that was happening in the House of Representatives,″ said James Thurber, a political scientist at American University.

``Americans didn’t like the government being shut down. They don’t like perceived and actual cuts in education, environment, Medicare. Clinton has been a strong candidate, very presidential, and that makes a difference.″

Dole went through a bruising primary contest, even losing the vaunted New Hampshire primary to conservative commentator Pat Buchanan. He survived, but was bloodied, left without campaign spending money for three months while Clinton _ unopposed in the primaries _ battered him with $25 million.

The Republican tried a series of bold steps to shake up the race: He resigned from the Senate, embraced a 15 percent tax cut despite decades of fiscal conservatism, picked former rival Jack Kemp as a running mate, poured resources into California hoping for an upset, and, finally, ended his campaign in a 96-hour marathon.

But Clinton’s stubborn lead persisted, no matter what Dole tried. As late as last week, Dole was campaigning in states in the South he should have nailed down months earlier.

A weary Dole told a rally in Knoxville, Tenn., on Monday night: ``I really believe we are down to this time where probably nothing I would say could sort of change the election.″

The same thing could have been said of his entire campaign.

Could Dole have turned it around? ``No, probably not. but he certainly could have made it closer by running a better campaign,″ said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.

Clinton, meanwhile, appropriated Republican themes _ crime, welfare reform, family values, a balanced budget _ and modeled his re-election campaign on President Reagan’s 1984 race.

He claimed credit for the sound economy, asked people if they were better off than four years ago and dwelled on upbeat ``Morning in America″ themes.

In fact, Clinton never formally announced his candidacy for re-election. He didn’t have to.

Republicans sought to damage him with ethical charges and by trying to link him to questionable and even illegal contributions from Asian business interests.

But none of it really stuck.

``People decided early,″ said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political scientist. ``The country was not all that interested in the election, but to the extent that they did tune in, they weren’t terribly upset about anything. There was no passion or anger.″

In dealing with the Oklahoma City bombing and the TWA tragedy off Long Island, Clinton looked presidential. He could also seize attention in the international arena, retaliating against aggression in Iraq by Saddam Hussein and trying to broker a new Mideast peace agreement.

Economic growth soared to a sizzling 4.7 percent in the July-September quarter _ just when Clinton needed it the most. Even the Federal Reserve handed him a valentine, passing up several opportunities to raise interest rates.

Although he is exceptionally fit, Dole’s age, 73, also worked against him, as did his generally lackluster performance in the presidential debates and on the stump.

And the GOP challenger was plagued by organizational problems, running what Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson called the second-worst presidential campaign in recent history _ the worst being, according to Thompson, President Bush in 1992.

___

EDITOR’S NOTE _ Tom Raum has covered presidential elections for The Associated Press since 1976.

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