Clinton Draws Battle Lines, Affirmative-Action War Begins President Gives Support for Preferences, but University of California May End Them

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PRESIDENT Clinton declared his solid support for affirmative action this week, but the issue is far from settled.

In California, regents of the state university system were expected to vote yesterday on whether to abandon admissions based on race, gender, or religion. Overall, the state is gearing up for a 1996 referendum on whether to make all state programs race and gender neutral.

On Capitol Hill, Senate majority leader and presidential candidate Bob Dole (R) of Kansas says he will introduce legislation next week that would bar affirmative-action programs that use quotas, goals, set-asides, and other preferences.

But with the delivery of his long-awaited speech, Clinton has finally joined the battle. Most supporters of affirmative action - defined in a new White House report as "any effort to expand opportunity for women and racial, ethnic and national origin minorities" - are cheering the president.

"People were saying, 'Don't give a speech, don't give a speech,' and I think the most important thing is that he decided to be a leader," says Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "He didn't have to, but he's shown some courage here."

Clinton needs women's vote

Women's rights groups were pleased with the president's attention to their side of the equation, often ignored amid the sound and fury over racial minorities' benefits. "Women have been buried in the political debate up to this point," says Kathryn Rodgers, executive director of the National Organization for Women Legal Defense and Education Fund.

In fact, support from women could become an important weapon in Clinton's reelection arsenal. Many Democratic women stayed home from the polls last November, when Republicans swept the elections, and the party is looking at ways to reactivate a demographic group that accounts for more than half the electorate.

President Clinton also clearly concluded he could not afford to alienate black voters by issuing anything less than a ringing endorsement of affirmative-action. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, in California for the university affirmative action debate, offered only lukewarm support for Clinton's speech. But the president's pronouncement does take some of the wind out of Mr. Jackson's sails as he contemplates his own possible run for the presidency. …