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President Clinton told a Democratic audience including many vocal affirmative action activists on Saturday that the party must be sensitive to grievances of "the angry white male" and be prepared to abandon minority preference programs that don't work.

Jumping into the battle for public opinion for the next 100 days, Clinton gave the strongest defense yet of his decision to order a top-to-bottom review of such programs - already under fierce assault from the Republican majority in Congress."We have to realize that there is a real problem out there. We can't deny that," Clinton said.

Clinton had been expected to focus his speech, to a meeting of the state Democratic party, on a repetition of his problems with remaining items in the GOP "Contract With America," and his vow to veto programs that make large cuts in education, environmental and other social programs.

He did that at first. But, confronted with hundreds of activists in the audience waving green signs proclaiming "No Retreat - Stand up for Affirmative Action," Clinton launched into an impassioned defense of his decision to review affirmative action programs.

"We don't have to retreat from these programs. But we do have to ask ourselves - are they all working? Are they fair?

"This is psychologically a hard time for a lot of white males . . . the angry white male. Most are working harder for less," Clinton said.

His words at first drew chants of "no retreat, no retreat" from the sign-waving activists.

"Stop shouting," he said at one point. "That's what they want us to do. We have to lower our voices."

As he spoke on, making his case, the chants receded and finally his words drew widespread applause from the audience of several thousand Democrats.

An initiative proposed for the 1996 ballot in California would repeal state affirmative action laws for government employment, contracting and university admissions. The proposal, drafted by two college professors and supported by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, requires 600,000 signatures to qualify.

Supporters want the Legislature to vote to put the issue before voters next March - at the time of California's newly shifted presidential primary. Failing that, supporters say they will qualify it themselves for November 1996.

Early statewide polls show it has strong support.

Clinton said Democrats can't allow themselves to be forced into a position by Republicans of defending programs that may be indefensible; and should recognize that there are many examples of reverse discrimination in the country against white, often middle-aged males.