07/08/97 - 05:27 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Democrats aim to minimize damage from hearings

WASHINGTON - Both parties have more than their share of fund raising skeletons in their closets. By driving that point home, Senate Democrats may be able to blunt - or at least soften - a Republican probe of White House and Democratic improprieties.

The Democratic strategy became clear in the opening minutes of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee's hearings into controversial campaign finance practices of the 1996 presidential election.

With slides and charts and memos of their own, Sen. John Glenn and other Democrats staged a broad counteroffensive.

"The abuses have been bipartisan and our investigations must be bipartisan," Glenn asserted Tuesday.

Bipartisanship was almost totally missing from a day of fiercely party-line statements. The Ohio Democrat, the senior minority member of the panel, made it clear he wasn't about to work hand-in-hand with Thompson of Tennessee the way that, say, Republican Howard Baker of Tennessee did with Watergate Chairman Sam Ervin, a North Carolina Democrat.

If Vice President Al Gore went to a fundraising event at a Buddhist Temple in California, don't forget that the vice chairman of Bob Dole's campaign, Simon Fireman, was fined $1.6 million for campaign law abuses, Glenn reminded.

Contributors invited by President Clinton to the Lincoln Bedroom? What about then-President George Bush's use of White House stationary to herald a meeting and reception he threw in 1992 for three Republican contributor groups and members of his Cabinet?

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., waved a copy of the invitation for TV cameras to drive home the point.

And Glenn gave a detailed account of how money that he asserted former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour helped solicit from Hong Kong business interests wound up in a GOP-linked, tax-exempt group, then found its way into financing 1994 GOP congressional races.

Republican members of the panel yelled foul, suggesting that alleged Democratic misdeeds were far more serious than any GOP indiscretions.

But to a public weary of the allegations and counter allegations, those distinctions might be lost. At least that's the Democratic hope.

"They're all sinners, on both sides," said James Thurber, a political scientist at American University. He cited an iron rule of politics: if somebody's attacking you, attack back.

Thurber said the Democratic strategy - a little late, after months of negative headlines - might not totally neutralize the GOP charges. "But now that Republicans see that they're vulnerable, they don't seem to want to pursue the hearings as heavily or as hard as they once did."

Although Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., cautioned colleagues not to let the hearings degenerate into a "headline hunt" among members, that's exactly how they started out.

Thompson, a former Watergate staff lawyer-turned-actor-turned-senator, sought to add drama to the first session by asserting at the outset that China had plotted to influence U.S. elections with illegal money in a secret operation that may still be under way.

He called it "one of the most troublesome areas of this investigation."

When Glenn's turn came to speak, he had his own surprise disclosure: that a key holdout witness, John Huang, had offered through his attorney to testify under certain conditions.

That even seemed to catch Thompson off guard, who told the committee that his most recent information was that Huang would refuse to testify on Fifth Amendment grounds of self-incrimination.

The Senate hearings could have an impact on the midterm and 2000 presidential elections, and on key players in the fund-raising probe. It could also serve as a launching pad for Thompson, a possible future GOP presidential contender.

Yet the last major round of televised Senate hearings, on Whitewater, didn't exactly help that committee chairman, the abrasive Alfonse D'Amato.

Still, Thompson "goes down like a smooth scotch, and he's from Tennessee, which is surprisingly anti-Clinton, despite that it's Gore own home state," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.

Still, Thompson has "got to spin a story that rivets people," Sabato said. "It starts out as 'nobody cares."'

By The Associated Press

Copyright 1997 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.