Mounting a blistering counterattack to defend President Clinton from impeachment, the White House on Saturday rejected the independent counsel's charges of abuse of the presidency as a "hit-and-run smear campaign" deliberately steeped in gratuitous "pornographic specificity."

"The document is at bottom the overreaching and extravagant effort to find a case where there is none," the president's battery of defense lawyers declared in a 42-page detailed rebuttal of the 445-page series of accusations and revelations - officially known as a referral - submitted to Congress on Friday by Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel."The referral quickly emerges as a portrait of biased recounting, skewed analysis and unconscionable overreaching," the president's lawyers wrote in what was termed an "initial response" to the Starr report's recommendation of 11 possible grounds for the impeachment of the president.

Reviewing the $40 million, four-year investigation by Starr's office, the White House noted that Whitewater - the original focus of Starr's inquiry - was mentioned only twice in the submission to Congress, while "the issue of sex is mentioned more than 500 times."

Offering a point-by-point rebuttal of the charges that the president committed perjury, tampered with witnesses and abused his high office in trying to conceal an illicit affair with an intern, the White House concluded: "It is plain that `sex' is precisely what this 41/2-year investigation has boiled down to."

The president's team complained that the Starr report "is so loaded with irrelevant and unnecessary graphic and salacious allegations that only one conclusion is possible: Its principal purpose is to damage the president."

The president's lawyers and strategists worked though the night writing a detailed response to the massive report and proposal of impeachment offenses submitted to Congress. After considering the Starr referral, the House of Representatives must now serve as a grand jury, in effect, and decide whether to recommend an impeachment trial of Clinton before the Senate.

"As we judge the president, the people of America will also judge us," Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., cautioned his colleagues as they headed home to test the luridly roiled waters and begin what promises to be long months of grueling preoccupation with the impeachment issue.

As the lawmakers fanned out, Speaker Newt Gingrich emphasized in remarks in Atlanta on Saturday that no fair judgment of the charges could possibly be rendered "until you have given the president a chance to respond and given the Judiciary Committee a chance to do its job."

The White House rebuttal was acid in tone in attacking the competency and motives of Starr's investigation: "After impaneling grand juries and leasing office space in three jurisdictions, and investigating virtually every aspect of the president's business, financial, political, official and, ultimately, personal life, the Office of Independent Counsel has presented to the House a referral that no prosecutor would present to any jury."

The rebuttal admits the president's misbehavior with Monica Lewinsky. "The wrongfulness of that relationship is not in dispute," the White House said. "And yet that relationship is the relentless focus of virtually every page of the OIC's referral."

The White House pressed to regain popular initiative as House members went home this weekend and made critical soundings of how the scathing charges of illicit sex and abuse of office were being received by America at large. The release of the rebuttal came before the wave of Sunday morning political talk shows that will influence the emerging public debate over the impeachment issue.

In advance of that, CBS News released remarks from former Sen. Howard Baker, one of the principals in the Watergate inquiry that saw Richard Nixon resign as president in 1974. "I am generally sorry for President Clinton and his family," Baker said in a taped interview for "CBS Sunday Morning."

"But I think he has emasculated his presidency," Baker continued, saying nevertheless that he hoped Clinton "sticks it out and that we go through the impeachment process" so that the country might achieve "closure."

In its rebuttal, described as a "very preliminary" response, the White House said that "spectacularly absent" from the Starr report was any hint of exculpatory evidence that contradicts Starr's basic accusations.

"This is a failure of fundamental fairness which is highly prejudicial to the president," the defense team, led by David Kendall, com-plained.

The constitutional standard for impeachment - high crimes and misdemeanors - requires "political offenses, the critical element of which was injury to the state," the defense team continued. "The gravest wrongs - offenses against the Constitution itself."

"Nothing in the referral even approximates such conduct," the president's lawyers wrote.

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The complete text of Saturday's White House rebuttal to the Starr report is available on our Web site (www.desnews.com).