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He's willing to be seen with Clinton

While some Democratic candidates have sought to avoid appearances with President Clinton, Republican Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont has shown no such reluctance.

There he was last week, standing behind Clinton and flanked by two liberal Democrats, Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rep. Edward Markey, as Clinton signed a major education bill.

For Jeffords, the event in neighboring Massachusetts provided a good campaign-season opportunity to get into the picture as a moderate to liberal Republican.

It is an image Jeffords has cultivated carefully to appeal to voters in the only state whose one member of the House, Bernard Sanders, is an independent because neither the Republicans nor Democrats are far enough to the left.

The one-term senator's campaign literature ("printed on recycled paper") doesn't mention the word Republican, instead labeling Jeffords "experienced, independent, effective."

Jeffords' activism on education and the environment and his early support for Clinton's health care plan have left his Democratic challenger in this year's Vermont Senate race grasping for issues.

Jan Backus, a state senator from Vermont's southeast corner making her first foray into statewide politics, said that one of her major jobs is to show that Jeffords is more Republican than his image would indicate.

"Coming from Vermont, education reform is a no-brainer. Health care reform is a no-brainer," Backus said Monday.

She said Jeffords gets too much lingering credit from his 14 years in the House, when his frequent votes against Reagan administration policies cast him as a maverick.

"He's not a liberal and he's not a Democrat," she said. "He's been coasting on that for a long time."

Backus has convinced some Democrats at the national level of that view. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has pumped $100,000 into her campaign. But she was still outspent by Jeffords 10-1.

For the Democrats nationally, the stakes are higher. A Backus upset _ she was about 20 points behind in media polls in early October _ could help Democrats in their struggle to maintain a Senate majority.

"Who do Vermont voters want to be chairmen of Senate committees?" asked Ken Klein, a spokesman for the DSCC. "Do they want Jesse Helms to be chairman of Foreign Relations? Do they want Orrin Hatch to be chairman of Judiciary?"

Emily's List and the National Women's Political Caucus both have endorsed Backus, despite Jeffords' longtime support for continued legal access to abortions and other issues important to the women's groups.

Jeffords recently was given a perfect score of 100 percent by the League of Conservation Voters environmental group for his votes in the 103rd Congress.

Backus has responded by pointing to Jeffords' 1989 votes against requiring double-hulled oil tankers and limiting oil companies' liability when spills occur.

Jeffords spokesman Erik Smulson said Backus was referring to an amendment on double-hulled tankers that would have weakened the legislation.

Jeffords last year voted against the Clinton administration's economic stimulus package, a move that has drawn repeated criticism from Backus. Jeffords has said the jobs bill would have added too much to the federal deficit.