MANCHESTER, N.H., Feb. 18, 1999 (UPI) - With aides claiming vindication and a sense of historic victory, President Clinton returned to the scene of the 1992 primary that propelled him to the presidency, making a daylong nostalgia tour to promote health care reform and raise money for Democratic candidates.
Clinton began the day in Dover reprising the type of roundtable policy discussion with average citizens that fueled his presidential campaigns, and concluded at a dinner of more than 1,000 party donors, who stood at their tables for a full two minutes cheering the president at his first fund-raising appearance since his acquittal last week in his Senate impeachment trial.
''We stuck with you because you came to us with a detailed program, and you did exactly what you said you would do, and it worked,'' Clinton told guests at the National Guard Armory fund-raiser in Manchester. ''I didn't do it, we did it. You did it.'' He added, ''I have never forgotten the kindness, the toughness...the humanity and the determination'' of the people of New Hampshire.
Between events, one of Clinton's top strategists from his underdog 1992 campaign insisted the president should now be recognized for the compelling power of his ideas rather than his mere ability to survive scandal.
''There's a popular myth that he survived in New Hampshire, or indeed survived today, because of his political talent, which is manifest,'' said senior political adviser Paul Begala, referring both to impeachment and to Clinton's surprise second-place finish in the 1992 New Hampshire presidential primary.
''My view is that he is surviving, then and today, because of his ideas,'' Begala told reporters accompanying Clinton to Manchester. ''It's not about if he can deliver a speech. It's if he can deliver a program.
''And I counterpose that with President Reagan, who got in trouble with Iran-Contra and dropped 20, 30 points in the polls because we didn't like his ideas any more,'' said Begala.
''We weren't any longer, by '87, subscribing to the fundamental Reagan philosophy,'' he said. ''I think the Clinton ideas are dominating the whole issues race. That is why he's surviving and thriving.''
Clinton seemed equally enthusiastic about his first visit to the Granite State since 1996. Sitting at the roundtable talk in Dover alongside Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, the Democrat now sitting atop a heavily Republican state, Clinton eagerly exchanged ideas on health care for about an hour with like-minded New Hampshire residents.
He derided it as a ''crazy situation'' when a paralyzed former skier, David Robar of New London, complained that under current law he would lose federal health benefits if he worked full time. He called it ''a big problem'' when a mother from Nottingham, Christine Monteiro, described her efforts to find affordable medical coverage for her four children.
''This will cost money in the short run,'' Clinton said of his various proposals for increasing federal spending on health care, ''but it will save big money in the long run.''
The president was repeatedly cheered by the invited audience of some 200 at the Dover City Hall, and he stayed long afterward to reminisce, pose for photos and shake hands with virtually everyone in the auditorium. He headed afterward to a private lunch with old political friends in Merrimack, then traveled to Manchester for the New Hampshire Democratic Party's annual 100 Club dinner.
Unlike most fund-raisers that Clinton makes an effort to attend, the Manchester event collected relatively little money, keeping to its decades-old tradition of charging only $100 per person. It was preceded by a $750-a-person private reception.
Clinton remembers the state fondly for his comeback second-place finish behind regional favorite Paul Tsongas in the 1992 Democratic presidential primary, which revived Clinton's candidacy at a time when early allegations of marital infidelity and draft-dodging threatened to sink him.
Grateful to New Hampshire voters on the night of his primary victory, Clinton declared himself ''the comeback kid'' and promised the state's supporters at a gathering in Dover that he would remain with them ''until the last dog dies.''
Clinton laughed with donors in Manchester about how people in Dover remembered the slogan seven years later and quoted back to him such updated variations as, ''This dog is limping, but still going.'' He chuckled while reciting a few more, then added, ''I heard it all.''
Making the return with Clinton to a state famous for its primary-season scenes of presidential hopefuls tracking through the snow in search of voters, Begala sought out reporters in both Dover and Manchester to speak passionately of the Clinton legacy. He emotionally recalled Clinton talking education policy with a group of three teachers for 45 minutes at a New Hampshire diner in 1992, adding, ''That sort of thing happened all the time, and that's what was good about this process.''
Begala denied his comments represented the type of ''gloating'' that the White House said it would forsake following Clinton's acquittal in the impeachment trial. ''It's not gloating,'' he said. ''That's just sound analysis.''
As Clinton shook hands with several dozen cheering students from the Mastricola Middle School who had flagged down his motorcade on the way out of his luncheon at the Country Gourmet Restaurant in Merrimack, Begala said Reagan at a similar point in his presidency was ''out of gas.''
He then pointed to Clinton, who was walking through pouring rain to greet the sopping wet children standing two or three deep to welcome him, and added: ''This guy's not out of gas.''
But while Clinton and his aides renewed their political love affair with the Democratic half of the state, several dozen protesters stood outside the Dover City Hall holding signs that included such messages as ''Shame,'' ''Moron'' and ''Nobody is above God's Law.''
Dozens more greeted him similarly in Merrimack, including a man standing alongside a road wearing a black-and-white striped jail suit and a Clinton mask. And the fiercely conservative Manchester Union-Leader ran a front- page editorial telling the president, ''Don't Come Back Kid.''