Pat Robertson again suggested Tuesday that he thought the disclosure of the sex scandal involving television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart might be part of a continuing plot to discredit his presidential candidacy.
In making this assertion, Robertson, a former TV evangelist himself, made his most bitter attack to date on Republican front-runner George Bush, calling the vice president "weak" and stopping just short of accusing Bush's campaign of engineering the revelation of Swaggart's meeting with a prostitute at a hotel in New Orleans.
Swaggart's encounter with the prostitute reportedly took place months ago but was not publicly disclosed until last weekend. Robertson said that calling the disclosure's timing accidental--so soon before South Carolina's March 5 GOP primary and the Super Tuesday primaries on March 8--"would stretch the credulity of almost anybody.
Belief in Their Sleaziness
"Knowing the quality of the people surrounding George Bush," Robertson said, "there is nothing that I would not believe that they would do sleazy. I have never seen anything like it."
Robertson contended that he had learned that the Bush campaign is planning television ads "dealing with religious bigotry," set to run just before the primary.
"I just want to alert the voters of South Carolina that we're not dealing with nice people," Robertson said at a news conference.
Robertson's comments amplified those he had made about the Swaggart episode Monday night, when he asserted that "somebody planned it." His comments also represented the second day in a row that Robertson harshly attacked the vice president.
Bush, asked about Robertson's assertions while campaigning in Kentucky, said that, if his rival was suggesting that the Bush campaign had orchestrated the report about Swaggart, "that obviously isn't true."
"I don't think it's fair" to suggest that Swaggart's problems would cause "difficulties for Mr. Robertson," the vice president said.
Should 'Prove It,' Bush Says
But, he said, if Robertson had made such an accusation: "I think you ought to ask him to prove it."
The vice president made the remarks during a brief encounter with reporters in a hamlet named Bush, Ky.--named after George A. Bush, a store owner and postmaster there in the late 1800s.
Earlier Tuesday, at a campaign appearance at a community college near St. Louis, Mo., he responded to a reporter's shouted question about the Robertson allegations: "Oh, come on. It's crazy. It's an absurd charge."
Although the attacks on Bush seemed to gain some attention for Robertson, they appeared unlikely to prompt Bush to respond in kind.
Moreover, the issue dominated Robertson's day of campaigning, burying the rest of his message. For example, his attack on Bush Tuesday came at a news conference that had been called to introduce a black supporter who Robertson claimed could help win 30% of the black vote in South Carolina.
But during the 20-minute session, no questions were addressed to the black man, Johnnie Smith, chairman of the South Carolina Black Republican Council. Nor was Robertson asked anything about Smith or his effort to win black votes. In fact, every question but one dealt with Robertson's accusations against the Bush campaign.
Outrage at 'Dirty Tricks'
Robertson's aides said his attacks resulted from genuine outrage at "dirty tricks" aimed at the Robertson campaign.
As an example, Patrick Caldwell, Robertson's chief of security and confidant, said someone posing as a Robertson aide telephoned local media organizations and told them that Robertson would not be stopping Monday in Gaffney, S.C. As a result, he said, the site of a planned rally had to be changed.
At his news conference, Robertson repeated past charges of several incidents that he claimed victimized his campaign. In New Hampshire, he said, phony pollsters purporting to represent the Robertson campaign telephoned at "2 and 3 o'clock in the morning," angering potential supporters. Campaign telephone lines also were "hacksawed" in that state, he said, and some of his delegates' hotel rooms were canceled in Michigan.
Robertson called such tactics part of a "Watergate mentality," noting that Bush was chairman of the GOP during the period after that scandal.
No Evidence Against Atwater
Robertson singled out as the likely trickster Bush's national campaign manager, Lee Atwater, but acknowledged that he had no proof that Atwater sabotaged his campaign.
"People don't leave tracks," he said.
Robertson said: "I wouldn't tolerate people like that on my staff. If I had anybody engaged in dirty tricks on my staff I would fire him on the spot."
Bush's refusal to fire Atwater "absolutely means he's weak," Robertson said. "He has to know what's going on. It's like the piano player in the bawdy house who says he doesn't know what's going on. Of course he knows."
Bush said Tuesday that he had not spoken with Atwater about Robertson's allegation, but added: "When I see him, I'll ask him about it."
Robertson is close to the federal campaign spending limit. Page 16.