House Democrats across the country registered a dramatic shift in public opinion in favor of President Clinton Tuesday, enabling them to breathe a bit easier for the first time in weeks.
"It's as if the boil was lanced, and the fever has broken," said Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass. "Last week the calls were coming in 3-2 against the president, but today it's 3- or 4-to-1 in favor."
More important than the phone calls, opinion polls showed an upturn as well.
The president's job approval rating rose six points after his four hours of testimony was aired Monday, and his defenders now believe that this kind of sustained support could throw water on Republican attempts to remove Clinton from office.
Even several GOP members of the House Judiciary Committee conceded the edge may have shifted to the Democrats, noting constituents in their districts were not angered by Clinton's taped defense of himself in the Monica S. Lewinsky sex-and-perjury scandal.
One of them, Rep. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark., suggested the panel should be mindful of public opinion before it releases all of the supporting material independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr sent to the House.
For Markey, a liberal from a solid Democratic suburban Boston district, the upturn in public support for Clinton was perhaps inevitable, but virtually every kind of Democrat in Congress said Monday's broadcast of Clinton's Aug. 17 grand jury testimony appeared to have helped the president's cause.
"New Yorkers root for the underdog," said South Bronx Rep. Jose E. Serrano, D-N.Y. "People thought it was too much last week. Now they're saying, 'for God's sake give the guy a break.' "
In the Senate, Democrats also reported a shift in Clinton's favor. Aides to Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., said telephone calls changed to a "heavy pro-Clinton tilt," while Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., said calls were running 2-1 in favor of the president.
And even Republican senators reported a substantial drop in anti-Clinton calls, although most said impeachment or resignation remained the preferred choice.
In heavily Democratic Rhode Island, Sen. John H. Chafee's calls shifted from 4 to 1 against Clinton to better than 2 to 1 in his favor, but in the more conservative south, aides to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Tex., said her calls shifted modestly from 14 to 1 against Clinton to 8 to 1 against.
Pollster John Zogby said early numbers he saw from a poll set for release today "suggest to me that Monday's release of the video tape could be a turning point in all this."
"People are tired of that issue with the president. They want a resolution, but I'm convinced they don't want a president to get off scott free," he said.
A Gallup poll conducted Tuesday for CNN and USA Today showed that 66 percent of respondents still approved of the job Clinton is doing, six points higher than the figure Sunday, the day before the broadcast.
Two-thirds of Americans surveyed after the telecast of Clinton's grand jury testimony say he was evasive in his answers and even more don't buy his narrow definition of sexual relations, the polls indicate. But most people don't want him removed from office either.
Clinton's job approval rating ranges from 60 percent to 68 percent, according to surveys taken Monday night by ABC News, CNN/USA Today/Gallup and CBS News. And about six out of 10 oppose his resignation or impeachment, said the polls, which were taken hours after the videotape was shown nationally.
While most say Clinton should not be removed from office, 68 percent in the Gallup poll said the Lewinsky matter is causing significant harm to the country.
It's not clear yet who will pay the biggest political price. In the Gallup poll, Clinton is blamed by 43 percent for the current situation, Starr by 32 percent and Republicans in Congress by 16 percent.
White House aides say privately they are watching the polls to see what kind of marks congressional Republicans are getting for their conduct of the investigation. At this point, the public disapproves of their handling of the Lewinsky investigation by 62 percent to 34 percent, according to the ABC poll.
Six out of 10 said Congress was wrong to release the videotape and prosecutors were wrong to ask about such intimate details. And the president was right not to answer such questions, according to 70 percent of those in the ABC survey.
Among those who saw the videotape, 45 percent approved of the president's handling of the testimony and 41 percent disapproved, the ABC poll said.
"The overnight polling data suggest that the American people now have a more sympathetic view of the president than they had before," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
But not all of the poll results were good news for Clinton -- 68 percent who saw the videotape described his answers as evasive. And four out of five disagreed with Clinton's narrow legal definition of "sexual relations."
The percentage who think the president should be impeached and removed from office, 41 percent, has not grown significantly in the last week but has increased by 11 points in the ABC poll since Sept. 13, just after the report from Starr was released.
But while there was general agreement the videotape appeared to help the president, Democrats divided over what should happen next.
Moderates warned that Clinton's new popularity might not last.
Rep. James P. Moran Jr., D-Va., recalled that in a meeting of roughly 20 centrist and conservative Democrats last week, every single one indicated approval for a formal investigation. "On a scale of ten, it's a nine in terms of the likelihood of the House voting for an impeachment inquiry," Moran said Tuesday.