On Target

IF DOLE'S MISTAKE WAS NOT TO ASK FOR HELP, Bill Clinton's was to ask for too much. During his first two years in office, Clinton couldn't get enough advice. At one time or another, he solicited the opinions of New Age gurus, eminent historians, old college buddies, TV producers, pollsters, pundits, CEOs and liberal activists, all summoned to tell the president what he should do next. Clinton's ability to talk and listen, to care and share, is a great attribute, but during the early years it had two serious drawbacks: White House meetings were never-ending, and Clinton had a tendency to agree with everyone he met.

On the night of Dec. 1, 1994, however, President Clinton was not in a mood to take anyone's advice. His presidency was in tatters. 1992, as his aide Harold Ickes described it, had been all about ""Gennifer, the draft and didn't inhale.'' The next two years had been worse, a series of bungles and botched opportunities from haircuts to health care. In 1994 Republican congressional candidates had run ads morphing their opponents into Bill Clinton--and the Democrats had lost control of both houses for the first time in 40 years.

To dig out of the rubble, the president had assembled some of his most seasoned political advisers, including Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, Trade Representative Mickey Kantor and HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros. For a couple of hours, the meeting wandered aimlessly until Kantor said to Clinton, ""You're going to have to take clearer stands.''

Clinton exploded. ""Goddam it,'' he yelled, ""don't tell me about taking clearer positions. I took a clear stand on guns [banning the sale of assault weapons], and it cost us the election.'' He rambled on about his ""tough stands'' on health care and NAFTA.

""You want to talk about why we lost the election? You want to talk about why?'' Clinton's face was turning purple. ""Because the DNC didn't do its part. We didn't have a message.'' He became self-pitying. ""Everyone loads everything on me, and I'm supposed to pull the whole thing. I get treated like a mule. Whenever I'm at my desk I end up with these lists of people to call. I'm supposed to call every junior congressman about every vote. I'm the legislator in chief. It's wasted time, because the American people don't know I'm doing this stuff. And I shouldn't have to do it. I don't have time to think.''

Leon Panetta, the White House chief of staff, bravely suggested that Clinton wanted to talk on the phone all the time. This suggestion produced more presidential rage. Finally the meeting broke up. Nothing had been accomplished.

Yet, looking back, Henry Cisneros realized that something important had happened, which the president's outburst had finally made clear. Clinton had been set free by the Republican landslide. No longer would he have to spend hours soulfully agreeing with do-gooders or the old paleoliberals up in Congress, or any of the parade of party hacks who had led him astray in his first two years. The press beast would no longer be fixated on the contest of Clinton vs. Clinton. Now it was Clinton vs. Gingrich.

Typically, when presidents get in trouble they reach out to the Washington establishment. Aging ""wise men'' are summoned to give counsel. When Whitewater was heating up, Clinton had grudgingly brought in Washington superlawyer Lloyd Cutler to run the disaster-prone office of the White House legal counsel. He had hired media insider David Gergen ""to help me interpret Washington,'' as Clinton put it. But both men were gone in less than a year. Though he hid his scorn, Clinton hated what he privately called the ""f---ing Washington crowd.'' He was not about to go crawling to them again. Instead, he turned to someone so far outside the establishment that almost no one--except Bill Clinton--would claim him as a friend.

Dick Morris wasn't just a hired gun, he was an outlaw. Political consultants are famous for their cynicism, but they generally work for only one political party. Morris worked for both Democrats and Republicans, sometimes at the same time. Not just moderates, but true believers on opposite sides of the political spectrum. He ran Senate campaigns for Howard Metzenbaum, an urban big-government liberal, and for Jesse Helms, the terror of the right. He had been taught politics as a blood sport by his father, a New York real-estate lawyer, who had in turn been taught by Al Cohn, boss of the Bronx and father of Roy Cohn, hatchet man for Sen. Joe McCarthy. Scruples were for chumps, or, as Morris once said, ""Truth is that which can't be proved false.'' Morris's role model was Lee Atwater, the GOP strategist who knew how to drive ""wedge issues'' right through the American public.

Clinton's relationship with Morris went way beyond politician and political consultant. They were more like pupil and teacher--only it was hard to tell which was which. If Clinton was Elvis, Morris was Col. Tom Parker. He was the manager who, in his own mind, had become more talented than the act. Morris's rise and fall is one of the great stories of modern political campaigning, at once tragic and ridiculous. He was a classic mercenary--demonic, brilliant, principle-free. He was mocked at the White House as a crazy person, paranoid and grandiose; some aides called him ""the Unabomber.'' And he played a critical role in Clinton's political resurrection.

They had known each other since their late 20s, when Morris, then a young consultant on the make, introduced Clinton (his first client) to the power of polling. He showed Clinton how public-opinion polls could shape a candidate's issues--and even his beliefs. Morris helped Clinton become the youngest governor in America in 1978. Then, as soon as Clinton got to the governor's mansion in Little Rock, he dumped Morris. In the next election, the voters dumped Clinton. Chastened, the ex-governor got back in touch with his old friend. Morris got him re-elected by making him apologize to voters for his mistakes. ""When Clinton lost the election in 1980,'' says Democratic pollster Pat Caddell, ""he sold his soul to the Devil, and the Devil sent him to Dickie Morris.''

MORRIS AND CLINTON FELL out again in 1990. Clinton chastised Morris for paying too much attention to his Republican clients, and Morris walked out, saying that he was going to work for Clinton's opponent. The governor grabbed the consultant by the shoulders and spun him around. A security guard had to break up the scuffle. After Clinton moved to the White House in '93, Morris went on to make attack ads for other Republicans, portraying the president as a big-spending wimp who had ""made our military a joke.''

But Morris continued secretly to make calls to the man he once described as ""the essence of my career.'' Before the 1994 elections, Morris was one of the few who told Clinton that the Democrats were going to ""lose big.'' He also predicted that Newt Gingrich would self-destruct. ""Let the wave run its course,'' he told Clinton that December. ""Get yourself in a position where you can ride the wave to your advantage.'' Morris, who always had an idea, had a plan for Clinton's resurrection. He called it ""triangulation.''

Clinton should move right, Morris said. But he needn't become a pseudo-Republican. The trick was to co-opt the Republicans on issues that were truly popular, like balancing the budget and reforming welfare. Meanwhile, let the Republicans tear themselves apart over abortion, and paint them as extremists on education and the environment. It was like a triangle, he said. The Republicans and the traditional Democrats would be strung out down at the bottom, while you, the president, would float above them at the apex.

Moving to the center in an election year is hardly original advice. Far more important was Morris's urging that Clinton should ignore his handlers and the congressional Democrats. ""Your advisers have become your jailers,'' said Morris, and the president was in a mood to listen. After the '94 elections, Morris and Clinton began talking almost every day.

Morris was bound to be hated by the White House staff. For a time in the winter of 1994-95, they didn't even know who he was. One day in mid-December, Clinton stood in his private study and dictated, paragraph by paragraph, whole sections of a speech he was scheduled to give on national TV--a ""middle-class bill of rights'' that promised a leaner and meaner government. The staff was perplexed: where had this tepid Republicanism come from? ""It was sort of like the ancients discovering astronomy,'' said Bruce Reed, Clinton's domestic-policy adviser. ""It was clear that there was a powerful gravitational force, but we didn't know what it was.'' Major sections of the speech had sprung out of Dick Morris's laptop. The State of the Union in January was even more chaotic. Downstairs in the West Wing, the usual committee of advisers drafted the usual Democratic spiel. Upstairs in the residence, Morris was feeding the president a more centrist vision. Clinton slapped them together like a midnight sandwich dripping with jam and pickle juice. Aides ran the finished copy down the White House driveway as the president's motorcade left for Capitol Hill. The speech ran 82 minutes long and was dismissed by the Washington pundits as a mishmash. But Clinton's poll ratings notched up a couple of points.

THAT WINTER, LEON PANETTA BEGAN making mysterious references to ""Charlie.'' The staffers guessed that ""Charlie'' was a play on the disembodied telephone instructions handed out to the winsome crime stoppers on the old TV show ""Charlie's Angels.'' But who was Charlie? In March, senior adviser George Stephanopoulos guessed who the mystery man was, but Morris wasn't really outed until April, when he wrote a speech that Clinton delivered to newspaper editors, extolling the ""dynamic center.'' Morris loved the guessing game. ""Mystery is an integral part of power,'' he pontificated. He refused to allow photographers to take his picture and was rumored to use an assumed name when he checked in to hotels. He commuted to Washington from his home in Connecticut, staying at a $440 suite at the Jefferson Hotel three nights a week. He compared the nation's capital to Hershey, Pa.; he didn't want to work in the chocolate factory. He was fascinated by Charles de Gaulle, who avoided Paris ""to gain height and space.''

Inside the White House Morris planted Bill Curry, a failed Connecticut gubernatorial candidate, as counselor to the president (Gergen's old title). Affable, verbose and earnest, Curry had an engaging, eager-to-please manner. Naturally, he was hazed mercilessly: there was no desk in his office when he arrived, and he was told the wrong location for meetings, then snickered at when he finally showed up.

Chief of staff Panetta was furious about Clinton's back channel to Charlie, but Morris's real foe in the White House was Harold Ickes, whose animosity ran all the way back to their days as rivals in Democratic ward politics on New York's Upper West Side. Ickes, son of FDR's commerce secretary, was an orthodox New Deal Democrat. He had paid for his liberal principles with his kidney, removed after he was almost beaten to death on a civil-rights march in the 1960s. An insomniac with a wicked temper, Ickes was famously cheap. As he slouched around in frayed suits, he would pore over Morris's hotel bills, fuming over the numerous charges from the minibar.

Morris thought Ickes was a Stalinist. He joked that Ickes was the first man he'd ever met who liked the Communist Party not for its ideology but for its pragmatism. Morris dismissed the rest of Clinton's top aides as the ""thugocracy.'' He didn't care; he had the president's ear. In June 1995 Morris persuaded the president to propose reaching a balanced budget in 10 years. On the night of June 13, Morris, Curry, communications director Mark Gearan, deputy chief of staff Erskine Bowles and a few others gathered in Panetta's office to watch Clinton address the nation. The staffers were cross. They had hotly argued against the balanced-budget pledge. But Morris had triumphed. As the staffers slumped over on the sofa, Morris jumped up to turn out the lights. He wanted to dramatize the moment. The staffers just looked at each other in embarrassment. When the speech was over, Morris embraced Curry and moved to hug Panetta. The chief of staff quickly stuck out his hand in a pre-emptive handshake.

""It's the economy, stupid'' had been an article of faith among the Clintonians ever since the slogan had been scrawled on the wall of the ""war room'' during the '92 campaign. Clinton's pollster, Stan Greenberg, still believed it. He insisted that the Democrats had lost Congress because they had failed to look after the ""downscale voters,'' the lower-middle-class blacks and whites who had turned out for Clinton in 1992 but now felt disenchanted. To win them back, Greenberg believed, Clinton had to address their economic anxiety. There was one big problem with that strategy: since Clinton had been presiding over the economy since 1993, the squeeze on the middle class might be perceived as his fault.

Greenberg was not the only pollster working to re-elect Clinton, however. Morris had recruited his own team, Mark Penn and Doug Schoen, a pair of Har- vard-educated New Yorkers who juggled political and corporate accounts like AT&T and Texaco. The White House staff was oblivious to Morris's polling duo, at least at first. They were denied permanent White House passes, forced to wait for admis- sion outside the gate with the pizza vendors, bicycle messengers and lost tourists. But from their Manhattan offices, they were doing research that would change the thrust of Clinton's 1996 campaign.

As he sifted through the data at 2 a.m. one scorching July night, sweating over his spreadsheets, Penn worked on a contrarian thesis. The economy was not the problem. Yes, there were anxieties about downsizing, wage stagnation and the growing gap between rich and poor. But consumer confidence was actually at a 10-year high. People were mad at government and wary of Clinton, but most expressed satisfaction with their own lot.

A traditional class-war message, Penn figured, would get Clinton about 40 percent of the vote. The key to the election, as always, was the 10 to 20 percent in the middle. Penn's polling data showed that these swing voters were more worried about America's moral decline than its economy. They were upset about crime, drugs, sex and violence on TV, teen pregnancy, the growing coarseness of American life.

To test a ""message'' for a political ad, Penn and Schoen often polled in shopping malls, the town squares of '90s America. The idea behind mall testing was to catch people thinking about politics the way most Americans did--as a momentary distraction in their lives. Penn and Schoen felt that focus groups, the tool of most political pollsters, were contrived. How often did groups of 12 people sit around talking politics for two hours over Coke and pretzels?

With their sophisticated techniques, Penn and Schoen zeroed in on what Penn called the ""swing-rich'' middle--young, upscale suburban parents who were the most important bloc of undecided voters. In July 1995, Penn designed a ""megapoll'' that would find Clinton's ""market.'' The survey produced one particularly disturbing finding. Parents with children leaned strongly toward Bob Dole. They associated Clinton with Gennifer Flowers and smoking (if not inhaling) pot. They just didn't trust the president to protect their children's future. ""We lose the family vote,'' wrote Penn in a memo to the campaign.

Winning back the family vote, Penn wrote, was the key to ""unlocking the electorate'' for Clinton. But how to get around voter worries about Clinton's character? His answer was to stress the president's public values. ""We should talk about the morality of certain actions,'' Penn urged.

There has always been a touch of the preacher in Bill Clinton, and the vocabulary of values came to him naturally. By the fall, his speeches were regularly drawing a moral dividing line. Republicans, he said, routinely ""violated,'' ""ignored,'' ""trampled'' and ""dishonored'' American values, which the Clinton administration ""cherished,'' ""respected'' and ""defended.'' So weary did White House speechwriters get of inserting ""values'' into every other sentence that they would sometimes just flash a ""V'' with their fingers at meetings when Morris or Penn started theorizing.

AFTER VALUES, PENN PROMOTED a second big theme: optimism. The voters, it turned out, were surprisingly upbeat about their own economic future. In his effort to feel people's pain, Clinton was stepping on his own economic good news. Administration officials spent too much time publicly fretting over America's ""problems.'' Robert Reich, the talky labor secretary, was a prime offender. Better, Penn suggested in a memo to the entire cabinet, to talk about ""achievements'' and ""challenges.'' ""Failure to recognize the optimism of the electorate and to correctly revive it . . . could be the single biggest mistake that cost us the election,'' Penn wrote.

At Clinton's invitation, Penn became a regular at the political meetings held most Wednesday nights in the White House residence. Clinton's top aides looked sullen and traded glances when Morris spoke. But when Penn began discussing his values pitch that fall, even skeptics like Panetta paid attention. Penn was given a place to stash his bag and his polling data in the West Wing. It was a closet, a two-foot-wide area that could barely accommodate the beefy, rumpled six-footer. But Penn, and the politics of values and optimism, was in. Class war and economic gloom were out.

His friends began to notice a change in Clinton that autumn. In October Henry Cisneros traveled with him to Austin, Texas, to make a speech, and beforehand the presidential party went out to a Mexican restaurant with a group of longtime Texas supporters. Normally, Clinton would have joined--or more likely led--the joking, the laughing, the spinning of tall tales. But Cisneros observed that Clinton kept trying to bring his old buddies back to serious subjects, to test their reactions to what he planned to say on the subject of race and affirmative action. The Million Man March was scheduled in Washington the next day, and Clinton was worried that it might turn violent. Clinton's eyes, Cisneros thought, had a distant look. Later, in the car, Cisneros told the other revelers, ""You know, he's seen things. He knows things about the world, about people. He's seen intelligence reports that have taken him to a different place. There's no one else at that place.''

The public, too, began to see Clinton differently. His openness and informality had been winning at first, but voters had been put off by the TV pictures of the chubby president huffing along in too-short jogging shorts, or answering a question on his preference in underwear on MTV. But as 1995 wore on, the public began to see a president who actually looked like one. He seemed to stand a little straighter. His stare was steadier and at the same time more distant.

Some of this was pure artifice. Desperate to make their president seem more presidential, Clinton's handlers had urged him to watch old Reagan videos to study the Gipper's aura of command. The First Lady had spruced up his wardrobe--the jogging shorts had to go. He began to jog less, lift weights more. The midnight raids on the White House refrigerator were harder to control, but at least Clinton wasn't ballooning.

His new look was also earned. When he took office, Clinton did not even know how to salute the military, much less run it. Crises in Haiti and Bos- nia gave him on-the-job training. By overwhelming majorities, Americans disapproved of sending troops to either place. But he had defied public opinion in both instances, and by the spring of 1996 the polls showed growing confidence in Clinton as a foreign-policy president and as commander in chief.

A year earlier, in April '95, Clinton had felt obliged to insist that the president was still ""relevant'' in a government that seemed to be dominated by Gingrich and his Republican revolutionaries. A few days later Clinton traveled to Oklahoma City, to the scene of the devastated federal building, blown up in a terrorist blast. He was at once sympathetic and stoic. He mourned for the dead, he vowed to catch the killers and he conveyed a reassuring sense that life would go on.

LOOKING BACK, COMMENTATORS sensed that the public view of Clinton began to shift after Oklahoma City, where he had exhibited the take-charge determination as well as on-key rhetoric that Americans expect of their president in times of trouble. In the months ahead, as Clinton teared up in a dignified way at one funeral or another, the press would grow cynical, especially when he seemed to be able to switch his emotions on and off. But Clinton's aides were sure that he wasn't faking. They particularly saw a change in him after the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Clinton regarded the Israeli leader as something of a father figure. The two men had made common cause in pursuit of the elusive goal of peace in the Middle East, and Clinton was devastated when Rabin paid with his life. The afternoon of the shooting, Nov. 4, Harold Ickes and national-security adviser Tony Lake found Clinton on the White House putting green. When they told him the news, the president began to cry. He went into his small private office and sat there. He leaned his head back against the wall. Ickes dimmed the lights and left Clinton alone, quietly weeping.

All these experiences seemed to deepen Clinton, to lift him from the feckless swirl of his first two years and transport him to what Cisneros had called ""a different place.'' Three weeks after Clinton helped bury Rabin, he went to Ireland on his way to visit American troops preparing to ship out from their bases in Germany into the Balkan winter. The president had helped broker a ceasefire by the Irish Republican Army, the best hope of peace for Northern Ireland in decades. In Belfast and Derry, Clinton was overwhelmed by adoring crowds, chanting his name (which sounded like ""Bull! Bull! Bull!'' in the thick tongue of Ulstermen). It was his first up-close experience of the hope that his power had inspired in people from a foreign land. Sen. Christopher Dodd was watching Clinton as he stood on a stage in front of thousands of screaming Irishmen. ""He sort of filled out,'' said Dodd. ""The suit finally fit.''

IN THOSE NERVOUS DAYS FOR THE White House, potential challengers seemed to lurk behind every poll. There was Colin Powell, the hugely popular and theoretically Republican former chairman of the Joint Chiefs (box). And there was the rambunctious, always unpredictable speaker of the House. Newt Gingrich liked to say that his ambition in life had always been to be speaker, but he had grander dreams as well. Hardly had he become speaker than he began thinking about running for president against Bill Clinton. The two men had much in common: they were both baby boomers, policy wonks, champion talkers. They were politicians who actually cared and thought about broader themes of governance. Running against Clinton, the speaker thought, would be a way to elevate the debate to a higher level. Gingrich cherished the intense, unfiltered coverage you could get only in a presidential campaign. He thought he would win, not just because he regarded himself as a better debater but because he was on the right side of history. He believed, said his press secretary, Tony Blankley, that ""he could simply make a case that was irresistible to a majority of the country that we were right and Clinton was wrong.''

This daydreaming took some intriguing forms. Gingrich had read somewhere that Jack Kennedy and Barry Goldwater, as presumptive candidates for 1964, had talked about flying around the country on the same plane and pitting their opposite visions, liberal and conservative, against one another in an authentic national debate. Gingrich, said Blankley, had envisioned something like that.

Gingrich saw himself as an epochal figure. Flat-footed and nearsighted as a boy, he had read Arnold Toynbee on the rise and fall of civilizations while others were out playing ball. He was a romantic; while his stepfather, an army officer, was off fighting in Korea, Gingrich watched John Wayne in ""Sands of Iwo Jima'' four times in one day. He studied great leaders--Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, Washington and Lincoln--hoping that he could somehow absorb their aura and method of command.

Even before the Republicans scored their election upset in 1994, Gingrich had sounded out Mike Deaver, President Reagan's image maker, for tips on projecting leadership. Gingrich went on about Reagan's technique--always positive, anecdote-laden and on message. Deaver wanted to say it was a bit more complicated than that, but he didn't care to get involved. In ""the sweep of history''--a favorite expression--Gingrich imagined himself at the forefront of an ideological realignment. Reagan had only started the revolution. Gingrich would complete it.

For much of 1995, this didn't seem an idle boast. Gingrich's ""Contract With America'' set the agenda for Congress. Liberalism seemed dead, and possibly the Democratic Party as well. Deaver, no longer so dismissive, began offering Gingrich advice. In April Deaver persuaded the speaker to schedule a televised ""conversation with the nation.'' It was only a few days later that Clinton had to defend his ""relevancy'' at a press conference. Gingrich had almost succeeded in turning the president into a constitutional monarch, with a fancy title but without much real power.

Gingrich was in many ways an effective and disciplined prime minister. He ignored the seniority system and installed his own committee chairmen. His top lieutenants were given army training manuals. Before long they were speaking of ""shaping the battlefield'' and ""commander's intent.'' He turned the speaker's rooms in the Capitol into a political fairground. Photographers wandered about popping flashbulbs. In a corner Gingrich's personal historian from West Georgia College sat taking notes so that posterity wouldn't miss a trick. Guard dogs sniffed for bombs. Gingrich's staffers cringed when their boss drifted off into what they called ""Newt World,'' as on the day he demanded that everyone attend an all-day session with a psychoanalyst to discuss the concept of ""tough love'' and dependency in the context of welfare reform.

Jaded Washington--and particularly the supposedly liberal press corps--was for a time enchanted with Newt. But the public was not. Many people seemed to find reasons to dislike Gingrich even before they knew what he stood for. Southerners were put off, even though he came from Georgia. He was too slick, too aggressive, too fast-talking--could anyone so ungentlemanly really be from the South? In focus groups, pollsters in both parties heard epithets like ""loudmouth'' and ""blowhard.'' He shoots from the hip. He talks without thinking. He doesn't care about us.

FRIENDS TRIED TO WARN HIM. GOP chief Haley Barbour told the new speaker he shouldn't take a fat book contract for his memoirs, but Gingrich agreed only to forgo the advance. ""You're like the kid in high school who sat in the front row of the class with his pencils in a pocket protector and raised his hand first on every question,'' one adviser told him. ""He was usually right, but nobody liked him.''

""I was that kid,'' Gingrich replied.

In February, just one month into his term as speaker, a group of prominent Republican pollsters, including Fred Steeper, Linda DiVall and Ed Goeas, met with Gingrich to deliver some bad news. Steeper lived up to his nickname (Dr. Doom) by telling Gingrich that his ""negatives'' were climbing and threatened to undo him. Gingrich seemed unperturbed. ""This is momentary,'' he said. ""We are going to fix that soon.'' In early March, Barbour came with a similar warning. ""You can't stay down there too long, or it will become permanent,'' Barbour said. Again, Gingrich sloughed off the warning. He pointed to Gov. John Engler of Michigan, whose numbers had cratered when he proposed draconian cuts in welfare. Now Engler was a rising GOP star.

Like the president, Gingrich enjoyed New Agey psychobabble. But for all his fascination with his own place in history, he was remarkably lacking in self-awareness. Soon after he took over, the Democrats began filing ethics charges against him for alleged circumventions of the campaign-finance laws and House rules. The tactics were similar to the ones Gingrich himself had used to topple House Democratic Speaker Jim Wright in the late '80s. But Gingrich refused to see that the mud might stick to him, too. At leadership meetings, he would pound the table and yell, ""This is just bulls--t!'' Over Memorial Day weekend in 1995, Gingrich took his annual trip to the house of Gay Gaines, a wealthy backer, in West Palm Beach, Fla. Also down for the weekend were Bill Bennett, the party polemicist most recently famous for his best-selling ""The Book of Virtues,'' and Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing talk-show host. Gaines put on some Motown tunes, and the group pulled back the couches and danced. Bennett lip-synced ""What Becomes of a Broken Heart,'' and the women did a number by the Supremes. No one came out and told Gingrich to run for president, but Bennett went on about the weakness of the Republican field. Limbaugh told Gingrich, ""You are the revolution, the articulator of the dream. But,'' he warned, ""whoever gets the nomination will take over the mantle.''

Within a few weeks Gingrich was up in New Hampshire, testing the waters in the first primary state. He played coy, calling it a ""moose-hunting trip,'' and Tony Blankley, his portly press secretary, dutifully wore a ridiculous ""moose hunting'' outfit. Gingrich had arranged to be in New Hampshire at the same time as Clinton, and the two traded smiling barbs and bonhomie. This was it: Newt and the president, mano a mano.

In July it was time for a little reality. As they sat stuck in midtown gridlock in New York City, Blankley carefully broached the subject of Gingrich's negatives. Gingrich began to hold forth on his notion of the Great Debate. He was the one who led the revolution; he was the one who should take on the president. Blankley gingerly steered back to the low polls and what they meant for a presidential run. ""You really can't do it,'' he said. ""I know,'' Gingrich said.

Still, there was a revolution to be won in Congress. Gingrich was determined to begin the process of dismantling what he called ""the liberal welfare state.'' Unlike earlier revolutionaries, including Reagan, Gingrich wasn't just talking about it. His mantra was ""zero in seven''--a balanced budget by the year 2002. He picked seven years not for any particular economic reason but because it seemed ""mystical.''

Gingrich scored some real successes during the summer, slicing the federal bureaucracy without the usual ""smoke and mirrors'' that had made budget cutting a farcical exercise in past Congresses. The speaker was exultant. On the night of one particularly difficult vote, he sat with his captains around a huge garbage can filled with cold beers. Toasting their triumphs, Gingrich conjured up the Duke of Wellington conducting the peninsula campaign against Napoleon. But some of his guerrillas were getting out of hand. Under the prodding of House Whip Tom DeLay, a former Texas exterminator who once called the Environmental Protection Agency ""the Gestapo of government,'' what had begun as ""regulatory reform'' turned into an all-out assault on the popular Clean Air and Clean Water Act. Republicans began to look like enemies of the environment and tools of corporate interests, who were in fact drafting much of the legislation.

Health care was an even greater political hazard. Gingrich understood that in order to balance the budget, he had to begin the painful process of restraining the growth of federal entitlement programs that account for half of government spending. In Gingrich's plan Social Security was still sacrosanct, but health care for the poor and the elderly was not. Spending was growing at an alarming rate; it had to be reined in.

DON'T,'' HALEY BARBOUR BEGGED the speaker. Democrats would turn on the Republicans for going after Medicare and Medicaid ""the way the pope hates sin.'' Gingrich refused to back away from spending cuts he was sure were necessary: the Medicare trust fund was facing bankruptcy right after the turn of the century. He wasn't actually cutting Medicare spending overall, but rather lowering the rate of growth from about 10 percent a year to 7 percent. At first, Gingrich wanted to give a nationwide address on the need to take responsible action. A pollster had provided the proper spin--the GOP was just trying to ""preserve, protect and defend'' Medicare--and Mike Deaver was ready to help with the staging. But Gingrich backed away after a heated discussion with Barbour. Get a deal with Clinton first, Barbour counseled, then go on the air and take credit. Instead, Gingrich shot his mouth off in front of some reporters, predicting that the existing Medicare bureaucracy would one day ""wither on the vine.'' It sounded as if he were talking about Medicare itself--and the Democrats were handed a devastating sound bite for a future ad.

One day in late September, Dick Morris burst into a ""message meeting'' at the White House. ""Medicare's a winner,'' he exulted. Ignoring the modest scale of Gingrich's proposed ""cuts,'' Morris proclaimed that ""old people will end up on the sidewalks, where they'll curl up and die.'' The other Clinton aides in the room tried to look serious. ""Dick discovered Medicare,'' one staffer said to his colleagues afterward with a chuckle. ""Should we tell him the world is round, too?'' But Morris had perceived something the old pros had missed: a chance for a pre-emptive strike that would hit the Republicans in the heart of their revolution. The Democrats were amassing a huge, $42 million war chest, in part to intimidate any challengers from within the party. Over the objections of Harold Ickes and others who wanted to save money for the following autumn, Morris persuaded Clinton to start spending on an ""air war.''

The Democrats' first commercial played on Penn's ""values'' theme. Called ""Moral,'' it opened with a shot of some children raising an American flag. ""As Americans,'' the announcer intones over swelling music, ""some things we do simply and solely because they are moral, right and good.'' Cut to black-and-white shots of Gingrich and Bob Dole glowering above the Capitol. ""Dole and Gingrich . . .'' (sinister flourish: Cha-CHUNG) . . . ""CUT MEDICARE'' (bright red letters). The camera shifts to President Clinton in the Oval Office. ""President Clinton: doing what's moral, good and right by our elderly.''

Later ads became even more pointed and extravagant. They were titled ""Protect,'' ""Slash,'' ""Cut'' and ""Wither.'' They accused the GOP not just of trying to check the growth of Medicare but of wishing to eliminate it altogether. Republicans were portrayed as cold, heartless champions of the rich. The Democrats protected traditional American values.

To spread this message, Bill Knapp, the campaign's media adviser, launched a stealth campaign. He wanted to reach swing voters, but he didn't want the press to pay attention. If reporters started scru- tinizing the Democratic ads, the Republicans might be stirred to respond. So Knapp quietly bought time in ""secondary markets,'' outside New York, Los Angeles and Washington.

These strategically targeted ads reached millions of viewers in the fall of '95. Morris watched happily as Clinton's favorable rating inched up with each ad, from 47 percent in August to the mid-50s by December. It was arguably the turning point in Clinton's campaign for re-election.

For the Republicans were overreaching. Gingrich had decided early on to try to rush his legislative program through Congress, FDR style, on a Hundred-Day fast track while his victory was fresh and the opposition still reeling. But 1995 wasn't 1933; the crisis atmosphere was missing, and a ""revolution'' turned out to be not precisely what the people--even some who had voted Republican--had in mind. The Medicare ads inflamed their doubts; as subsequent polls revealed, America was yelling, "'Hey, wait a minute.'' Gingrich didn't hear it, but Bill Clinton did. Reassured, the president took heart for the battle of the budget.

As the budget deadlock built--Congress would pass a tough spending bill and Clinton would veto it--Gingrich thought that the president really wanted to strike a deal. He knew that Dick Morris had opened up a back channel with Trent Lott, the Senate GOP whip and an old Morris client. Lott kept telling Gingrich that a deal was inevitable, that the White House would eventually fold. What's more, in their face-to-face discussions at the White House, the speaker tended to succumb to the president's affable charm. He mistook Clinton's natural bonhomie for a willingness to negotiate. At one point Gingrich mournfully admitted to Leon Panetta that after his visits with Clinton, ""I need two hours to detoxify.''

On the day before the government was scheduled to close down at midnight unless the president and Congress could reach an agreement, Clinton met again with Gingrich and other GOP leaders. He was immovable. ""If you want this budget signed, you'll have to put someone else in this chair,'' he declared as midnight approached. ""I will not now, not ever, sign this budget. I think it's bad for America.''

The speaker's frustration began to show in public. At a breakfast meeting with reporters, he griped that the president had refused to talk to him about the budget on the flight back from Rabin's funeral in Israel. He even complained that he had been made to use the rear exit of Air Force One. CRY BABY, jeered the New York Daily News. The White House gleefully released a photograph showing that the president had indeed talked with Republican leaders on the plane. Gingrich's poll numbers headed for new lows. In one congressional district in Maine, 85 percent of the voters gave him unfavorable ratings, and 46 percent marked him at 0 or 1 on a 10-point scale. In Cleveland the only man who ranked lower that December was Art Modell, who was in the process of moving the Browns football team out of town.

ON THE WAY BACK FROM THE White House on Jan. 2, Gingrich finally began to accept that he had lost, that there would be no deal, that the Republicans and not Clinton were being blamed for shutting down the government. He called his wife, Marianne, and groaned that he had been naive. She said she was reminded of an episode from ""Leave It to Beaver'' in which Beaver gets conned out of his lunch money by a hobo. ""Newt,'' said Marianne, ""you're just being the Beaver.''

One of the standard maxims of the political-consulting game is ""He who defines first defines last.'' The confrontation between Gingrich and the White House in the fall of 1995 proved the rule. Clinton's ads had helped convince millions of swing voters that the Republicans had shut down the government while Clinton had bravely defended the elderly. The truth was not so simple. In fact, both sides were to blame for the budget breakdown. While the Republicans had made a genuine attempt to check the growth of big government, they had also recklessly voted for a large tax cut, opening the GOP to the charge that it was financing tax cuts for the rich by slashing health care for the elderly. The Democrats, meanwhile, had stalled for weeks before producing a balanced budget that was less than credible. Both sides had become hopelessly locked in. But it didn't matter. The public wasn't interested in the details.

In retrospect, Clinton had scored a major victory by standing firm. But what seemed brilliant tactics had sprung--as is so often the case in politics--in part from inadvertence. Morris himself had wanted to make a budget deal; the back channel was not just a ruse. Morris's liberal foes, Stephanopoulos and Ickes, had been terrified that the president would fold. Most White House aides had been furious about the back channel and wanted to close it down. Only after the game was over did they realize that it had helped to bamboozle the other side. "'You couldn't have bought a better disinformation campaign if you tried,'' said Stephanopoulos. Two months after the press declared Clinton the winner in the budget battle, Leon Panetta, too, was still marveling at the president's good fortune. ""I could tell you this was all Machiavellian,'' he said and burst into laughter.

""Let's face it,'' Stephanopoulos said. ""Gingrich saved our butt.'' His hot rhetoric allowed the White House to paint him and his unruly freshmen followers as extremists. In mid-December, Harold Ickes sat in his White House office and mused, ""Every time Newt opens his mouth it helps us. Keep talking, Newtie. I mean, anyone with 55 to 65 percent negatives . . . Just keep flapping them lips, boy.''

There were no victory celebrations in the White House. Any joy was dampened when Whitewater flared up again in January and the First Lady was compelled to testify before a grand jury. But for the first time since he was elected, Bill Clinton's favorable rating had moved past 50 percent and stayed there. The budget fight had been the first engagement in the presidential campaign. By exaggerating the GOP's mandate in 1994, Newt Gingrich dramatically lengthened the odds against Bob Dole in 1996.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Head to head: Clinton was happy to let the Speaker speak.

PHOTO (COLOR): Morris: He was Colonel Parker to Clinton's Elvis

PHOTO (COLOR): Medicare: Well, it wasn't really a cut

PHOTO (COLOR): Gingrich's "Contract': Hey, wait a minute

PHOTO (COLOR): This government closed till further notice

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Disaster on Air Force One

FOR A FEW WEEKS IN the fall of 1995, the focal point of media political attention was not Clinton, not Gingrich, but a potentially more glamorous figure, Gen. Colin Powell. In September and October, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs embarked on a publicity tour to promote his book, "'My American Journey.'' The press treated it as the kickoff of a presidential campaign. Powell was an anti-politician in an anti-political season, a movie screen upon which the public projected its fantasies of heroism. Northern liberals saw a black man and assumed he was liberal; Southerners saw a general and assumed he was conservative. By not being too specific about his mostly moderate beliefs, Powell kept the fantasies alive. At McLean, Va., his first stop, there were 40 camera crews and a line a half-mile long. The news magazines put him on their covers (twice on NEWSWEEK'S). IF COLIN POWELL HAD THE NERVE, HE COULD CHANGE AMERICA, headlined Time. The story was so fawning that Powell, who had a sense of humor about himself, told friends that it was ""a major barf.'' A CNN poll in the early fall showed Powell ahead of Clinton by 46 to 38 percent.

The White House watched the Powell phenomenon with growing disquiet. Clinton was convinced that Powell would run, even though Hillary and Al Gore tried to reassure him that he wouldn't. Staffers were instructed to say nothing about the general, but behind the scenes Clinton and his closest advisers were trying to figure out how to dim Powell's aura.

Commentators were comparing Powell to Cincinnatus, the general who came out of retirement to save Rome. The White House had another historical analogy in mind: George McClellan, Lincoln's famously overcautious and politically meddlesome general. McClellan had run for president against Lincoln in 1864, an act of disloyalty that seemed almost treasonous in the midst of the Civil War. ""If he had run, it would have been the first time since McClellan ran against Lincoln that a commanding general ran against a president he had served,'' Clinton told NEWSWEEK in January 1996. ""I mean, think about it.'' McClellan had been a poor general because he had been afraid to attack, fearing that he lacked sufficient force. Powell was widely hailed as a hero of the gulf war, thanks in part to his brilliant TV briefings. But he, too, had been extremely reluctant to commit U.S. forces, and he had pushed President Bush to cut short the war once it had been won.

White House aides were poised to launch the McClellan comparison with reporters and editorial writers. ""We were prepared to make the case that there was something vaguely disloyal about it, that it was unprecedented,'' said George Stephanopoulos. ""It would have made Powell more of a politician, less of a hero.''

By early November, Clinton's operatives had picked up enough from Republican sources to believe that Powell lacked the stomach to run. On Nov. 7, Stephanopoulos went into the Oval Office to tell the president he had heard that Powell would not declare. ""You're wrong,'' Clinton responded. ""He's gonna do it.''

By the next morning, the news was out that Powell wouldn't run. ""We labored hard not to seem overjoyed,'' said White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry. Clinton wasn't celebrating as he watched the evening news. ""You better let everyone know there are going to be a lot of ups and downs before next year,'' he told chief of staff Leon Panetta. ""It isn't over by any means.''

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