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CLINTON'S LOYAL SUPPORTERS <br> LOCAL DONORS TO DEFENSE FUND STANDING BY THE PRESIDENT

Looking at the goings-on in the nation's capital this August, Joe Nickell of Buffalo is as mad as a Bills fan in January. Mad enough to be talking impeachment.

But it's a kind of impeachment that President Clinton most likely would favor himself.

"(Independent Counsel) Kenneth Starr is our national fascist, a partisan witch hunter who deserves to be impeached," said Nickell, 53, who calls Clinton "an admirable president."

Those are strong words, but there's a small chorus singing them all through the Buffalo area, even after Clinton admitted that he had an improper relationship with former intern Monica S. Lewinsky. That chorus consists of Nickell and other contributors to Clinton's legal defense fund.

Yes, working stiffs and retirees are paying the president's legal bills. And despite his admission of infidelity and dishonesty, he's still their Bill.

"He's doing a darn good job," said Frank C. Balester, an 84-year-old retiree from Buffalo who gave $10 to aid the president in his legal battles. "From the beginning, Clinton should have told Ken Starr that his sex life was his own business. Everyone has their own personal life. Why can't the president?"

Balester is by no means alone in that belief. According to documents released in Washington last week, 20 people from the Buffalo area gave anywhere from $10 to $500 in the first half of this year to the Clinton Legal Expense Trust. The Buffalo News interviewed 10 of those people this week, and eight said they still support the president.

None of those contributors are prominent politicians or leading Democratic donors -- some of whom said, privately, that they're aghast at Clinton's behavior. Instead, the contributors are common citizens whom Clinton has affected in an uncommon way.

"Bill Clinton strikes me as being a rare politician in contemporary terms in that he tries to say things to pull the nation together," said Marcus Lawson, a 55-year-old construction worker who gave the fund $500 -- its largest contribution from Buffalo. "Others tend to be antagonistic."

Meanwhile, Mary Ring, a social worker in East Aurora, runs through a laundry list of Clinton's accomplishments, ranging from a strong economy to a balanced budget to a downsized government and a more peaceful world.

"Even with everything that has come out, I think Bill Clinton is far above any president in my lifetime, and I'll be 59 next week," said Mrs. Ring, who contributed $50. "I feel very bad for what a segment of the country has tried to do to him."

Mrs. Ring was just one of several contributors who agreed with first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's contention that there's "a vast right-wing conspiracy" aimed at destroying the president. Some even said the conspiracy might be vast enough to include Ms. Lewinsky.

"This thing shook me up, but I'm sure somebody is behind this," said Elizabeth Tari, a 69-year-old retiree from Buffalo who wrote a $20 check to help the president. "He was set up. They knew that he had a big heart. And at the right time and the right place, she (Ms. Lewinsky) was there."

In the same vein, Nickell termed Ms. Lewinsky "a groupie who sought him out." And David P. Morris, an 81-year-old retiree from North Tonawanda who contributed $100, said: "All of this is political. These girls (such as Ms. Lewinsky) are ridiculous. They're ladies of the night."

And Starr, Clinton backers said, is the Prince of Darkness.

"I dare say that there are few people, including Kenneth Starr, who could withstand the kind of scrutiny that Bill Clinton has been subjected to," said Nickell, an author of 16 books, including several that investigate the paranormal.

"Some people seem to have a terrible grudge type of thing against the president," Morris added. "But I don't think our president should ever have to put up with this sort of thing, this digging into his private sex life."

Those opinions stand in sharp contrast to what the nation's top Democrats are saying.

House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., said this week that Clinton might be impeached, and it seems that those leading Democrats who aren't criticizing the president are saying nothing at all.

None of the big-name Democrats from the Buffalo area -- the Frank McGuires and the Joe Crangles -- gave one red cent to the Clinton legal fund this year.

Several, like McGuire, said no one ever asked them to give. The normally loquacious McGuire didn't seem all that anxious to discuss Clinton's travails, though, saying only, "I think this is sad for America."

Another prominent Democrat in Buffalo, who asked not to be identified by name, wasn't shy about explaining why party stalwarts aren't rushing to the president's aid.

"He has been good on many policy issues, but there's just such a proliferation of issues of personal integrity and abuse of the office," he said. "If they came to me tomorrow, I certainly wouldn't give them any money. I'm really put off by the guy."

Americans clearly aren't, though. Poll after poll shows voters approving of Clinton's performance as president even while disapproving of his personal behavior.

Voters are voicing their approval of Clinton the president in dollars and cents. The Clinton defense fund raised more than $2.2 million in the first half of this year, thanks in part to all those small donors and in part to $10,000 contributions from the likes of movie director Steven Spielberg.

The defense fund relied on word of mouth, a person-to-person appeal of top Democrats and a letter-writing campaign to get its donations, said Anthony F. Essaye, the fund's executive director. Most of the Buffalo-area donors were on Democratic mailing lists and got a letter appealing for donations.

"We've gotten a much better response than we ever expected," Essaye said.

Of course, some of those donors were stunned and disappointed by Clinton's defiant confession last week.

"I don't like what he did, I don't like anything about it," said Richard C. Sherill, a division manager at Moog Inc. who contributed $50. "I heard what he said, but it doesn't excuse it."

Even Nickell, who gave $100, acknowledged that he wasn't happy with the president's actions. "The thing I'm maddest at him for is just handing the bullets to the right-wing generals who could shoot them back at him," he said.

Nevertheless, Nickell is thinking about writing the Clinton defense fund another check. Others, such as Mrs. Ring, are urging compassion for the president.

"The president may have a sexual compulsion," the East Aurora social worker said. "From a distance, that looks likely. But if that makes him evil, well, then a lot of people are evil."

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