The Omega House Family Restaurant on the outskirts of Winston-Salem, N.C., is a homey spot, the kind of stay-a-while place where the waitresses call everyone “Hon” and the coffee cups are never allowed to get empty. The bigger world intruded briefly last week in the person of John Edwards, a tall, made-for-TV lawyer campaigning to represent North Carolina in the U.S.
Senate. He sat for a while, shook all the hands and and then was gone—leaving the patrons discussing something they say they rarely talk about: politics.
They chewed over taxes and schools, social security and health care. They bemoaned the fact that Winston-Salem, capital of the ailing tobacco industry, has stagnated while other parts of the state have ridden a high-tech boom. What they did not discuss, until an out-of-towner forced them to, was Bill Clinton and his woes.
Susan Brittain and Judy Freeman, both registered Democrats, readily agreed that the President’s carrying-on with Monica Lewinsky in the White House was disgraceful. But will it make them less likely to vote for Edwards, a Democrat? “I don’t see what that’s got to do with him,” said retiree Freeman, 61, and Brittain, a 42-yearold management consultant, agreed: “It’s not exactly at the top of
people’s concerns. Not by a long shot.” In the adjoining booth, Bob Fisher, a longtime Republican, said he has no use for Edwards or Clinton. The President, said Fisher, a 54-year-old sales manager, has been involved in a lot of shady dealings and “it just happens that what they got him on was this inability to, uh, concentrate on his job.” But is he surprised that other people don’t seem inclined to use their vote to punish Clinton? “Not really. He ain’t worth it.”
Across North Carolina, and, by and large, across the United States, candidates like Edwards have found they are rarely forced to deal with the Lewinsky saga as they campaign for election on Nov. 3. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives, 34 seats in the Senate, 36 governorships and thousands of local offices are up for grabs. Some of those contests have national importance in themselves—especially the fights for governor in California and in Texas, where Republican George W. Bush, son of the former president, is coasting to easy re-election and preparing for a likely presidential bid in 2000. But the issue that has obsessed Washington, launched a thousand talk shows and filled the newspapers is conspicuous by its absence. In a handful of close races, political professionals say, it may play a role—though even then they do not agree whether it will tip the balance against Democrats embarrassed by their titular leader, or against Republicans blamed for prolonging the unseemly spectacle. In most places and in most races, it has become a kind of political background noise while other issues and local personalities come to the fore. “Just about the only people who bring it up,” said Edwards, as he relaxed for a moment at the Omega House with a couple of reporters, “are you guys.” Not exactly. In some races—including several in North Carolina— Republicans have tried to tie their Democratic opponents to Clinton’s scandals. Senator Lauch Faircloth, the crusty old incumbent who is in danger of being defeated by the upstart Edwards, ran TV and radio ads last week labelling his sleeker, younger opponent a “Clinton liberal.” “Another vote for Clinton in Congress? No thanks,” ran the script, adding this not-so-subtle dig: “Keep Clinton in check with North Carolina values.” Edwards’s response: “He’s desperate.” Elsewhere, a handful of Democrats have tried to turn the issue the other way, running ads blaming Republicans for rubbing the public’s nose in the Lewinsky affair. Washington state Democrat Jay Inslee drew national attention with a recent TV spot attacking Republican congressman Rick White for supporting an impeachment inquiry. “Rick White and Newt Gingrich shouldn’t be drag-
Voters insist they are sick and tired of the Lewinsky affair, but their choices next week may decide Clinton’s future
ging us through this,” Islee says in the ad. “Enough is enough. It’s time to get on with the nation’s business.” The impact was dramatic. Inslee drew even with White in local polls, and in an interview said that voters have run up to congratulate him for taking a strong stand against impeachment. “It’s our way of giving the people a choice,” said Inslee. “Leaders stand up.”
But ads like those are rare. Most often they have been used by incumbents (like Faircloth) feeling the heat from a strong challenger, or underdogs (like Inslee) trying to shake up a local race. The vast majority of candidates are keeping the issue at arm’s length— scared of a backlash in either direction. Yet even if scandal is in the background, it will not go away. The outcome on Nov. 3 is bound to be interpreted through the prism of Clinton’s uncertain future. If Republicans do well, their hardliners will be quick to claim a mandate for pressing ahead with the impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives. If they pick up only a few seats, or if the Democrats defy all predictions and actually gain ground in Congress, Clinton’s position will be strengthened.
Even the standard for claiming victory is at issue. The party that controls the White House almost always loses seats in Congress in off-year elections—when there is no presidential vote. And in the middle of a president’s second term (like this year), woes those losses tend to be even bigger. So Republicans would have to gain ground just to meet the odds—even without help from a scandal in the White House. Clinton’s political director, Craig Smith, maintains that Republicans must win 26 extra seats in the House (they now hold a majority of 228) to match the “historical average” of the past century. In late
August—just after Clinton admitted he had had an affair with Lewinsky—Republican strategists were predicting they might pick up that many seats. Their public forecasts now are much more modest: a net gain of eight to 15. In the Senate, they had hoped to go from 55 to 60 seats—the number needed to prevent Democrats from blocking legislation with procedural moves. Now, they are looking to gain three or four.
The turnaround is due partly to Clinton’s uncanny ability to force his opponents to
fight on his turf—most recently by reaching an llth-hour budget deal with the Republican leaders in Congress that provides $1.5 billion to put 100,000 new teachers in schools across the country. All of a sudden, Democrats can campaign on “education,” leaving Republicans sputtering about morality—if they dare. But the change in forecast is due mainly to the public’s obstinate refusal to do what the experts predicted for months they would do: turn decisively against the President. Instead, polls show
they have remained remarkably consistent—disapproving of his personal conduct but opposed to putting the country through the trauma of impeachment.
North Carolina is as good a barometer of that feeling as any state. Much of it remains traditional tobacco-growing, hog-farming country, but it has been transformed by burgeoning high-tech industries around RaleighDurham in the east and banking in Charlotte to the west The state elects Democrats and Republicans in roughly equal numbers, and this year observers are watching it for signs of how national trends may play out.
A candidates’ debate late one evening in the suburbs of Raleigh pits Democratic congressman David Price against a Republican hopeful, Tom Roberg. For two hours, they field questions—on health care, taxes, education, crime, housing, social security and foreign policy. Finally, there is one question on Clinton and most of the audience groans. Price says he “shares the revulsion at his reckless behavior,” but insists, to a smattering of applause, that it is time to “put this behind us.” Later, a retired computer technician named Leon Shapiro, 67, explains that while he despises Clinton—“I cannot abide a draft dodger”—no one he knows supports impeaching him. “Clinton in, Clinton out— we can survive,” he says. “But we cannot survive the destruction of the presidency.”
Even in more traditional areas, there is little sign of a groundswell against Clinton. Johnston County, to the east of Raleigh, is old-style North Carolina. There are almost as many hogs (90,000) as people (100,000), which goes far to explain the area’s renowned barbecue culture. Democrats outnumber Republicans, but they tend to be conservative Christian Democrats—no friends of Bill Clinton. The local Republican candidate for Congress, 32-year-old Dan Page, tried to capitalize on that feeling in August when he became the first Republican to run a TV ad directly linking his opponent, Democratic congressman Bob Etheridge, to the President. It showed grainy footage of Clinton and Lewinsky, with the voice-over: “Scandal after scandal. Day after day. And who stands with Bill Clinton even now? Liberal Bob Etheridge.”
The ad won Page national attention from news media eager to gauge the local impact of the Washington scandal. “People around here thought the President was just going to get away with breaking the law,” Page told Maclean’s. “They said, We want someone to say something.’ I don’t know what it’ll change. But if we give up the principle that everyone in this country is treated equally under the law—even the President—then we’ve lost an important battle. I’m not willing to concede that.”
Attention, though, does not necessarily translate into votes, and Page still trails his opponent. Even in down-home Johnston County, response to the scandal is muted. In Smithfield, the county seat, the locals gath-
er at Shirley’s Grill on Market Street. Retired postal worker Roy Keen, 65, has no time for the President—“just the fact that Clinton never served his country is enough for me.” His wife Rebecca, 63, feels just as strongly. “The moral issue is a big one with me,” she says. “If this country doesn’t stand for something, we’re just going downhill.” They haven’t decided how to vote, but agree that impeachment is a step too far. “It makes the country look real bad,” says Roy. “And anyway, he’ll be out of office before they could do it. It takes so long.” Adds Rebecca: “There’s a lot more important things that need to be done than dealing with him.” Republican strategists agree that playing up the Clinton issue probably loses them more than it gains. “People are tired of hearing about it,” observes political consultant Dan Hazelwood. The message from voters, he says, is: “Just leave me alone.” Nonetheless, the scandal could influence a crucial factor in off-year elections: turnout. Even with the White House at stake, only about hah of eligible voters go to the polls; a midterm vote typically brings out only 37 or 38 per cent. Their profile is whiter, male, wealthier and older—disproportionately Republican, in other words—than the blacker, poorer, younger and more female group—usually Democrats—that is apt to stay away. That gives the Republicans a built-in advantage, one that many observers say could be more pronounced this year if Democrats are discouraged by Clinton’s problems and do not bother to vote. Which party gets its people out, say the experts, will make all the difference in the 40 or 50 House races that are considered close. “If you can tell me who’s going to show up, I’ll tell you who’s going to win,” said Craig Smith, the White House political director. “That’s the unknown question.”
Another crucial factor is money. Various Republican campaign committees have raised some $400 million, compared with just $255 million for the Democrats. That gives them a big edge in the final days, when the national parties are pouring millions into competitive House races and close Senate contests in North Carolina, New York, California, Wisconsin, Illinois, Nevada and Kentucky. By law, they can spend only a comparatively paltry sum—$100,000—directly supporting local candidates. But there is no limit on how much they can spend on socalled issue ads that typically attack their opponents and their records. Democrats are fighting back with get-out-the-vote campaigns often organized by unions, and highprofile appearances by their most popular campaigner: Hillary Rodham Clinton. She knows that her husband’s woes may not be at the top of voters’ priorities—but his future may well turn on what they do next week.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.