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Clinton popularity hard to figure

President Clinton's high popularity ratings in the face of humiliating reports of sexual misconduct are defying common political wisdom, undercutting the potency of the "family values" issue and redefining our concept of presidential leadership.

This unexpectedly positive reaction to charges of dishonesty and hanky-panky with a young intern is having strange results. Whether or not the president's remarkable CNN-USA Today Gallup Poll 69 percent job approval rating, published Monday, lasts as the country absorbs further details, the consequences of the current rally may be with us a long time.The polls are flabbergasting the pundits of the nation's capital, embarrassing the women's movement, galvanizing Democratic contributors, encouraging new permissiveness toward sexual harassment at the office and driving Republicans off the high road into open criticism at last.

Whew. We are confused. The polls show that even though a majority of voters approve of the way Clinton is handling his job, they don't trust him to tell the truth and think he is hiding something naughty. They are willing to separate his private and public lives and judge him at least temporarily on his public duties alone.

This is too much for simple minds to grasp. If it's not OK for ordinary workers to grope females on the job and lie about it, why would it be OK if the leader of the free world were guilty of similar behavior?

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., sighed, "It is very, very difficult to understand."

Who threw away the rule book when it came to Bill Clinton?

There are as many theories about Clinton's survivability skills as there are stories about his penchant for skirt-chasing.

As a nation we are no longer starry-eyed about political heroes; so we are more tolerant of private peccadilloes in high places. We like him because the economy is good, we are at peace, his feel-good policies please us and we like ourselves.

We thought we knew he was goggle-eyed over women when we elect-ed him, so we are not shocked. It is not clear whether we have lowered our standards for all politicians, but we certainly have done so for him.

There is also the inconvenient fact that the country is operating somewhat in the dark on this one. The White House refuses to enlighten us. The prosecutors are for the moment mum while they pursue various leads. The sordid tales, which I believe, dangle out there, but they're unconfirmed and contradictory.

And Clinton is fortunate in his enemies.

A more unattractive bunch, including Clinton's purported mistress, Monica Lewinsky, and his chief nemesis, independent counsel Kenneth Starr, would be hard to imagine. The CNN-USA Today poll indicates 42 percent of those surveyed have an unfavorable opinion of Starr. He is seen as overreaching by dishing too much partisan dirt and reportedly trying to persuade Lewinsky to bug a telephone conversation with the president of the United States.

Republicans who had held their fire when the story first broke are so astonished at Clinton's favorable ratings they decided their original strategy of letting him hang himself wasn't working.

As GOP leaders grew furious, however, Democratic loyalists took heart from the hope that their president may yet get through this latest crisis. Adversity may be galling, but it can also be galvanizing.

The Democratic National Committee reported a surge in contributions and local candidates continued to request that the president appear with them during the fall campaign. Clinton's two campaign-style stops last week generated large, cheering crowds.

All of this stands normal politics on its head.