His State of the Union speech reveals a hugely ambitious man with a bold, if sometimes messy, political style

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Clinton went through this process last year on the budget, NAFTA and health care, holding as many as 30 meetings with key advisers on each subject. Clinton took copious notes in those sessions, always asked the best question, sometimes taking an opposing view when his advisers had reached consensus. Says a political adviser: "He likes to ask, 'How would this play? What would the arguments be?' Or 'Let's hear the toughest case,' so that he can get a sense of the real-world fight he is going to have on his hands later."

During one discussion with economic advisers last year, Clinton made both the conservative and liberal arguments against his deficit-reduction plan; last fall, when his advisers unanimously agreed to oppose a balanced-budget amendment, Clinton immediately took the opposite view in the meeting. "We took it to him, and he bounced it," said an official. "It proves that he wants to hear both sides." (Later, Clinton agreed to oppose it.)

For Clinton, this kind of give-and-take enables him to make his case to the public more effectively, and he has developed a high confidence in his ability to sell his ideas once he has internalized them. "The speech," said an official, "is the place where he does the processing. It is the defining event. And that's why," she added, "no one can write it for him."

When Clinton fails to go through the lengthy process, it is usually costly. He skipped it on gays in the military, the appointment of Lani Guinier (whose works he did not study until it was too late) and Somalia. But when he takes his time, it works. Last summer, after he announced that he would nominate Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court, a beaming Clinton returned to the , West Wing and walked into McLarty's office to chat. "That just goes to show that if you give me enough time to make me feel great down here," he said, holding his gut with his hands, "it will work out."

Yet Clinton's method is so cumbersome and time consuming that he cannot afford to internalize every decision. Several officials note that Clinton did not fully embrace NAFTA until September, leaving himself an uphill climb that consumed most of the fall. "It takes a while," said an official. "The danger is that sometime it is going to take too long."

A senior Administration official said that Clinton's "discipline" problem could be overcome if he continues his deep strikes into Republican turf. The official believes the push to the middle, if sustained, will nudge the center of the Republican Party to the right, thereby lessening its appeal. "Just as Ronald Reagan created a coalition by moving into Democratic territory," the official said, "Clinton is moving into Republican territory on crime and values."

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