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Clinton Camp Urges Halt to Probe after Jones Decision

By Doyle McManus and Jonathan Peterson
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

White House aides seized on the dismissal of Paula Jones' lawsuit on Thursday and sought to turn it into a broader lesson: It's time for the other investigations of President Clinton to end as well.

"Starr should wrap this up quickly," presidential counselor Rahm Emanuel said, referring to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's probe into possible perjury. "Why are we having an investigation on a parallel matter after the case has been dismissed?"

"This raises the level of questions about Ken Starr's investigation," echoed Ann Lewis, the White House communications director. "Is it a question of merit, or is it fueled by partisan opposition to the president?"

Starr, who has been investigating charges ranging from possible fraud in Arkansas land deals to possible perjury by a former White House intern who allegedly had a sexual relationship with Clinton, replied Thursday that he does not intend to quit.

But White House officials said the prosecutor was not the immediate target of their invective. Instead, they said, they are seeking to influence voters - many of whom have rallied around Clinton in his time of legal troubles - and, through them, the Congress that will consider Starr's findings.

"This is a democracy, and the most important court is still the public," Lewis said.

In a well-organized phalanx bristling with newly drafted talking points, the president's official defenders fanned out across the media, painting Starr as a political partisan and making the most of the Jones case's sudden demise.

On paper, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Webber Wright did not exonerate Clinton of charges that he made a crude sexual advance to Jones in a Little Rock, Ark., hotel room in 1991. Wright merely found that the incident, if true, would not constitute sexual assault or sexual harassment.

But on the nation's airwaves, White House aides turned that relatively narrow legal judgment into a much broader assertion: that the president has been "vindicated," not only in the Jones case but, by implication, on a whole range of charges.

The stepped-up offensive against Starr was only part of a larger White House strategy to make the most of Wright's ruling.

After he returns Friday from a 12-day trip to Africa, Clinton plans a whirlwind of public activity focusing on his favorite domestic priorities - jobs, education, crime, Social Security, health care and tobacco legislation - to press the message that he has devoted himself to key national issues while his opponents have wallowed in the controversy.

Democrats and Republicans said the dismissal of the Jones lawsuit, which had appeared likely to dominate the news for several months, could open the way to more national debate on other issues.

"The biggest impact is that it should make it easier for us to talk to the American people about issues important to their lives in an age of scarce news holes," Lewis said.

"It will create a news vacuum," said Rep. David M. McIntosh, R-Ind., a leading conservative. "It creates an opportunity for President Clinton and the Democrats to fill in the space with their own agenda and we [Republicans] have to come back with our agenda."

Public opinion analysts said Clinton has gained public support during the past two months, when charges of sexual misconduct have dominated the news, in part because he has insisted that he is devoting his attention to issues of greater importance.

A poll conducted last weekend by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, for example, found public approval of Clinton's performance at a strong 65 percent. More important, pollster Andrew Kohut said, Clinton's popularity appears to be carrying over to Democrats in Congress. "He's got scandal coattails!" Kohut said.

At the same time, the allegations have taken a serious toll on Clinton's credibility and public esteem as a person. Asked what they believe Clinton's presidency will be remembered for, 56 percent of the public replied "scandals"; only 14 percent cited his management of the economy.

Republicans in Congress, granting Clinton his popularity, have acknowledged that their interest in impeaching the president - never high to begin with - has ebbed even further with the ruling in Little Rock.

"Unless there is an open-and-shut case, the kind which would result in a resignation, as happened with President Nixon, I do not think there ought be an impeachment proceeding," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa).