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Refusal to Play Character Card Angers Some in GOP

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It did not take long for questions about President Clinton’s character to come up in this week’s presidential and vice presidential debates.

But it was Jim Lehrer, the moderator, who raised the matter. And when he did, both Bob Dole and Jack Kemp pedaled as far from the incendiary issue as they would from a whopping tax-hike proposal.

“In my opinion, it is beneath Bob Dole to go after anyone personally,” Kemp said in his debate with Vice President Al Gore on Wednesday night.

That statement bitterly disappointed Republican activists who believe an assault on Clinton’s character is the key to reversing Dole’s fortunes and sparking a come-from-behind victory for the GOP presidential ticket in November.

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For two years now, Republicans on and off Capitol Hill have built up dossiers on Clinton containing questions on everything from the Whitewater affair to allegations of sexual harassment--all with an eye toward using the charges as weapons in the 1996 presidential campaign.

Yet the campaign is nearly over, and Dole and Kemp have consistently shied away from any discussion of those issues, avoiding them not only in the debates but a multitude of other arenas. Their approach has been a source of maddening frustration to some supporters.

“On balance, it was a disaster,” Rush Limbaugh said of Wednesday night’s debate, lambasting Kemp for talking about enterprise zones--an economic policy prescription--rather than Whitewater. Republican politicians are too worried about being called mean, Limbaugh declared, saying, “We need new leaders.”

Dole advisors, though, remain wary of exploiting issues of character for fear the strategy could backfire.

Campaign aides have two fears. First, personal attacks, they know, can lead the campaign in unpredictable directions, prompting all sorts of countercharges. Presumably, Dole is not eager to have his divorce from his first wife, or his conduct as a father who spent many nights away from home, subject to further public dissection.

Second, there is the worry that voters will reject whichever candidate appears to be “going negative.”

In Sunday night’s presidential debate, whenever Dole seemed to personalize his criticism of Clinton by deriding him as a liberal, “even the moderates dropped their rating of Dole,” said Frank Luntz, a GOP pollster who scrutinized the reactions of a group of voters during the forum.

“The problem I see is there are too many people still involved in Republican politics who only understand the brickbat theory of attack,” Luntz said of those who are pushing Dole to mount an all-out character assault. “In 1996 you kill your opponents with kindness, not with bile.”

That may be true, but with the final presidential debate looming Wednesday in San Diego, Dole and Kemp are facing powerful pressure to ratchet up their attack in an area that is seen as Clinton’s notable weakness. Voter surveys, for instance, have shown that the public awards Dole higher grades for trustworthiness than Clinton.

The riddle facing Dole’s campaign is finding an effective way to frame the character issue.

Some political analysts believe that the Republicans could move more forcefully against certain parts of Clinton’s White House track record. As they see it, this tack might extend to matters such as the White House gathering of FBI files on Republicans (and some Democrats), requesting the FBI to look into the White House travel office, the administration’s responsiveness to questions about Whitewater, and other matters.

“It does seem to me there’s a genuine issue here that I don’t think was handled well [in the debates] from a Republican standpoint,” said Everett C. Ladd, executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut.

There are signs that such thinking is spreading inside the Dole camp. Earlier this week, for example, Dole told Don Imus, the New York radio personality, that he would press Clinton harder in their next debate about the possibility of Whitewater pardons. He also told a rally, “We believe in values like honesty and decency and integrity and putting America first--not some selfish career or anything else.” Still, during his interview with Imus, Dole defended his decision not to criticize Clinton’s character during Sunday’s debate, saying that if he had, “then I’d have been the mean Bob Dole, that old Bob Dole out there.”

That is no idle concern. History suggests that the public is wary of presidential candidates who appear too dark in their message. Americans like to see qualities of cheerfulness, and no excess of hard edges, in their leaders, maintained Ladd. He pointed to Ronald Reagan and Franklin D. Roosevelt as examples. “We want a degree of softness, flexibility, goodwill, tolerance.”

What is more, Ladd added, “The public doesn’t need to be convinced that there are reasons not to elect Bill Clinton. The question is: Are there sufficient reasons to go with Dole?”

Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), a leader of the freshman class of House Republicans, acknowledged that more aggressive use of the character issue would be risky and might not attract the kind of swing voters Dole needs to win. But he said that with Dole far behind in most polls, it might be worth the risk.

“I think there’s a little frustration around the character issue,” Souder said. “No one is convinced it will actually work. . . . If you’re behind you’ve got to gamble a little. I’m not sure it will work but I think he needs to raise it more.”

Clinton’s advisors appear confident that even if Dole tries to raise the issue, it will only backfire on him. Joe Lockhart, the Clinton campaign spokesman, said that the lesson of this campaign is that “negative politics isn’t working.”

If Dole starts to skirmish in areas he has avoided so far, that could put Kemp in an uncomfortable position. The running mate who revels in high-minded debates about taxes and the economy so far has eschewed the traditional running-mate role of attack dog, apparently with Dole’s consent.

“As a staffer I’m frustrated” that Kemp did not light into Clinton on the issue of character, said one highly placed member of the Dole camp. “But Dole seems to be very at peace with it. He doesn’t seem to be angry with Kemp.”

Times staff writers Janet Hook in Washington, Marc Lacey and Maria L. La Ganga in Cincinnati and Elizabeth Shogren in Dayton, Ohio contributed to this story.


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