From the moment the name Monica Lewinsky began to dominate the national conversation, the White House determined that President Clinton's best survival strategy in the scandal was to mount an all-out attack on Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel.
"There's going to be a war," said James Carville, a longtime Clinton loyalist. In the five weeks since Carville's drawled declaration, the war between the president and the Whitewater independent counsel escalated with a bitter and personal attack from Hillary Rodham Clinton, who accused Starr of being part of a "vast, right-wing conspiracy" against her husband.One White House official was blunt about the strategy, calling the coordinated hostilities "part of our continuing campaign to destroy Ken Starr."
While these broadsides aimed at Starr and spearheaded by the White House have been effective, the independent counsel's own miscalculations, including last week's subpoena of a White House aide who was grilled about his press contacts, have contributed to a growing perception of Starr as an overzealous and tone-deaf prosecutor.
Now, even some of Starr's deputies are questioning the wisdom of some of his recent moves.
"We're getting creamed," a top deputy to Starr said.
Several members of Starr's team acknowledged privately that the office has made several strategic miscalculations that handed the White House additional ammunition to attack the independent counsel and to raise questions about the fairness of his investigation. Several lawyers in the office say they are worried that the inquiry may be in danger of losing its remaining reservoir of public confidence.
And some leading Republicans, whose party stands to gain from Starr's investigation of the president, have joined the chorus saying that the independent counsel may have gone too far.
Starr has suffered a plummeting public-approval rating. His favorable ratings sagged to just 11 percent last week in The New York Times/CBS News poll. At the same time, his unfavorable ratings have jumped 50 percent since the Lewinsky sex-and-coverup inquiry began in mid-January. Clinton's approval ratings, meanwhile, are soaring at 73 percent, the highest mark of his presidency.
Thus far, the White House strategy has been sufficiently effective to squelch suggestions of Clinton's resignation or impeachment. Starr has suffered the opposite fate: Last week, some in Washington began demanding that he step aside.
Given the White House's state-of-the-art public-relations machine, it is not a surprise that the president has appeared to enjoy the upper hand. Still, Clinton's partisans say they are amazed by the ease with which they have made Starr's tactics, and not the president's relationship with Lewinsky, the most scrutinized topic.
What is even more startling is how Starr and his prosecutors have allowed the White House to bait them into decisions and maneuvers that the public has found to be questionable at best and distasteful at worst. And Starr's rebuttals are often drowned out by the deft return volleys of the Clinton loyalists and White House aides.
For instance, Starr issued only a brief, written statement in response to the first lady's attack, calling her accusations "non-sense."
When Clinton's personal lawyer, David Kendall, accused the office of leaking grand-jury testimony, Starr announced that he would conduct an inquiry into the source of the leaks and simply pointed out that the information was also known by Clinton's defense lawyers and others.
One of the first major blunders by Starr, according to at least one lawyer on his staff, was calling a low-level White House aide named Bob Weiner before the grand jury. Weiner, a spokesman for the White House drug-policy office, was asked on Jan. 30 if he had urged Maryland Democratic officials to open an investigation into whether Linda Tripp had violated wiretap laws in tape-recording Lewinsky without her permission.
"That should send a message that people should not try to impede our investigation," one of Starr's lawyers said at the time.
But Weiner got plenty of air time that night and over the weekend, saying, "This is Big Brother at its worst."
While Weiner made Starr appear as if he might be overreaching, the independent counsel's caustic confrontation last week with a White House aide, Sidney Blumenthal, provoked more questioning of Starr's motives and tactics.
Blumenthal was summoned before the grand jury on Thursday because prosecutors suspected him of orchestrating a covert campaign to discredit two of Starr's prosecutors - and even Starr himself. The office had received more than 100 phone calls from journalists concerning "malicious rumors" about two of Starr's prosecutors, Michael Emmick and Bruce Udolf.
Starr's office responded with the extraordinary measure of sending a grand-jury subpoena to Blumenthal and to Terry Lenzner, a private investigator with Democratic Party connections. The prosecutors' sole purpose was to find out whether Lenzner had dug up dirt about prosecutors, and whether Blumenthal had spread the dirt to reporters.
Starr suggested that the people who were spreading the "misinformation or distorted information" about members of his team had impeded his investigation or even obstructed justice.
"The effort to investigate people - hire private investigators and look into the private lives of prosecutors - may be part of an effort to really obstruct justice," said Ronald Rotunda, a consultant to Starr's office and a professor of law at the University of Illinois College of Law. But, he added, "It is a perfectly valid thing to do."