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Clinton, Aides Begin Blitz To Sell His Plan to America

By James Gerstenzang and David Lauter
Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON

President Clinton and his Cabinet fanned out across the nation Thursday in an ambitious campaign to build public support for one of the largest tax increases in American history, with the president challenging Republicans unhappy about his plan to come up with a better one.

The cross-country sales pitch, a two-day blitz through 28 states, was unleashed less than 12 hours after Clinton presented to the nation his plan to boost taxes by $246 billion over four years and cut federal spending by $325 billion.

The president, his Cabinet and White House aides turned out from Boston to Austin to Los Angeles in full campaign mode, imploring blue-collar workers and barons of Wall Street to send Congress an unwavering message that voters would stand behind the young administration in its politically risky attempt to reverse 12 years of Republican economics.

To an enthusiastic crowd that filled Union Station in downtown St. Louis, Clinton threw down a challenge:

"I've already heard some people on the other side of the aisle say, `Well, he could have cut more,' " he said.

"Show me where, but be specific," he said, echoing the state's "Show Me" slogan. "No hot air. Show me.'

"We need your help," the president said, acknowledging the program's potential vulnerability as a big tax-and-spend initiative. "We need you to tell your members of Congress that we will support you if you make the honest, tough, hard decisions."

Throughout the day Thursday, administration officials turned up for appearances around the country and on television talk shows. Their goal: To counter Republicans' portrayal of the Clinton plan as a return to the "tax-and-spend" policies of former President Carter and other Democratic administrations.

As Republican Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas put it: "Cradle-to-grave government paid for by cradle-to-grave taxes."

Secretary of the Treasury Lloyd Bentsen, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor and others hopscotched through their political home bases in the toughest test of the Clinton team's political magic since the roughest days of the presidential campaign.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jesse Brown shook hands early in the morning with disabled veterans, and Robert Rubin, chairman of Clinton's new National Economic Council, returned to the canyons of Wall Street where he made his millions.

The administration team took heart from early overnight polls showing overwhelming support for the plan, though the sampling was done before the plan was subject to much public debate.

Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman got to the heart of the issue for the administration while touring a biotechnology plant under construction in Boston: "If the American public continues to like the plan, then Congress will support the plan."

Bentsen, who was a stalwart supporter of the oil industry while a Texas senator, marveled at his role in the debate. "Whoever thought a Texan would be talking about an energy tax?" he said at high school in Austin.

Administration strategists say the vote in Congress will be close, but in a step that they consider key to Clinton's strategy, they say he may be able to neutralize the opposition by forcing Republicans to advocate specific spending cuts to replace any tax increases they might want to eliminate.

The challenge, however, also cuts another way if viewed as an indicator that Clinton is ready, as he often was as Arkansas governor, to consider and negotiate changes in his programs.

White House aides, meanwhile, eagerly relayed to reporters traveling with Clinton accounts of telephone calls swamping Democratic congressional offices in support of the president.

And even as Democrats reported success, Republican offices reported waves of opposition. Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole of Kansas said at one point that his office was receiving 17 calls opposed to the president for every pro-Clinton call.

From St. Louis, Clinton flew to Chillicothe, Ohio. After a rally there Friday, he was to fly to Franklin D. Roosevelt's hometown of Hyde Park, N.Y., in an attempt to wrap his program in the mantle of the hero of the New Deal.

On Saturday, he plans to hold a televised town meeting with children in Washington and then fly west for stops in California and Washington state on Sunday and Monday.