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ANGRY HOUSE SPEAKER MAY BEAT LEGAL RAP BUT NOT THE MEDIA FLAP

Rep. Charles Wilson, D-Texas, compared it with "getting nibbled to death by ducks." House Majority Whip Tony Coelho, D-Calif, thought the

steady "drip, drip, drip" of new revelations more like Chinese water torture.House Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas, increasingly angry and embittered as he struggles to save his career, says trying to defend himself against the almost daily barrage of negative publicity is like taking aim "at a moving target."

The great frustration of those sympathetic to the speaker is that while many believe he can win the ethics case now pending against him on legal or technical grounds, that may not be enough to save his job because of the damage to his public image.

So the question being debated in Wright's offices and elsewhere among leading Democrats last week was what to do about it, and a start was made in mapping a strategy.

"He may win the legal battle but lose the war," said Vic Kamber, one of several Democratic political consultants who has been regularly consulted by Wright's staff on public relations tactics. "Even if he survives, he may be so weakened as to be ineffective."

Many of the 69 violations of House rules on which Wright was cited last month by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct deal with a series of alleged gifts and favors he received from a friend whom the committee deemed had an interest in federal legislation. The remaining charges relate to an alleged scheme through which the speaker exceeded a limit on honoraria by promoting the sale of a book from which he received generous royalties to groups that would otherwise have paid him speaking fees.

But even before Wright has a chance to defend himself formally against those charges in the trial-like proceeding to come, he is being buffeted by a series of press reports making new accusations as reporters continue to sift through his personal and financial dealings.

Just in the past week, the nation's news media have reported that Wright:

-Used his position as a House member to have printed in the Congressional Record what some said sounded like a promotional pitch for a home video made by a company that employed his wife;

-Hired and promoted to a top position a man once convicted of stabbing nearly to death a woman whom he lured into the back room of a store where he worked;

-Was granted favorable financial treatment in a nursing home deal that went sour, according to other investors.

Some of his Democratic colleagues who were skeptical of whether Wright was getting a "bum rap" from the ethics committee on the original charges are now saying privately that this accumulated evidence of bad judgment is leading them to the conclusion that he should step down.

"His effectiveness as speaker is over," concluded one congressman who said he was a great admirer of Wright's legislative skill.

Rep. Dan Glickman, D-Kan., who suggested that Wright was "too naive" in dealing with people who sought to take advantage of his position, said the atmosphere in the House seemed to be turning against him.

"His assumption that the members will reach an independent judgement from the committee is mistaken," Glickman said. "We're going to rubber stamp whatever the committee recommends. We'd be crazy not to."

But the Wright defense efforts so far have been primarily focused on the legal battle.

His several campaign committees paid $120,000 in December to the firm of Manatt, Phelps, Rothenberg & Evans, for the services of attorney William C. Oldaker who has been working on the case since last July.

In addition to defending Wright before the committee in its inquiry stage, Oldaker has been locked for weeks in negotiations with committee special counsel, Richard J. Phelan, trying to streamline procedures for a disciplinary hearing.

As a part of the legal effort, Oldaker has helped develop a case that attacks alleged inaccuracies in the report by Phelan underlying the committee's charges and questions the interpretation of House rules used to bring charges.

Oldaker said the speaker is about to select one of two top-notch trial lawyers, with particular skills in cross-examination, who will lead his defense if the negotiations with Phelan fail and a full-scale trial-like proceeding goes forward, probably next month.

But the public relations effort, a hit-and-miss campaign directed by Wright chief of staff Marshall Lyman and Wright press secretary Mark Johnson, has been overwhelmed by breaking events.

"That's got to be the worst job in America," Democratic political analyst Bob Beckel, said of the post held by Johnson, the speaker's third press spokesman in two years. "This story just never ends."