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Clinton Is Ducking Issue, 3 GOP Conservatives Charge

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

In the most forceful political response yet to the furor surrounding the White House, President Clinton was denounced Friday by three prominent Republicans--including the brother of one of his lawyers--for evasiveness in responding to the controversy.

Addressing the annual Conservative Political Action Conference meeting in this Northern Virginia suburb, Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) also criticized other leaders in his own party for not speaking out more strongly about the allegations that Clinton had an affair with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky and urged her to lie about it.

At the same gathering, former Education Secretary William J. Bennett--whose brother, Robert S. Bennett, heads Clinton’s defense team in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual-harassment case--chided Americans who say they believe the charges but do not care about them. Such an attitude, Bennett said, is akin to “making a deal with the devil” and hastens the nation’s moral decline.

And Steve Forbes, a 1996 presidential contender expected to try again in 2000, called upon his party to take advantage of Clinton’s current predicament by aggressively pushing a conservative legislative agenda.

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All three speakers, who drew enthusiastic applause from the hundreds of conservative activists attending the three-day session, are well suited to take on the task of challenging Clinton on the sexual allegations, which most established Republican leaders have shied away from for fear of a political backlash.

Ashcroft is building an incipient presidential candidacy by appealing to conservative Christians who are assumed to be particularly offended by the allegations against the president. William Bennett, who also served as White House drug czar, is regarded as an authority on morality, in part, because of his writings. And Forbes is a political outsider who can afford to disregard the conventional wisdom that has inhibited the response of other politicians to the Clinton crisis.

Ashcroft declared that moral leadership “is AWOL” in U.S. politics, adding, “and it’s not just missing in Bill Clinton.”

In an implied rebuke to Republicans who have been reluctant to criticize Clinton since the Lewinsky story surfaced, he said: “To sin by silence makes cowards of us all. It is time for us to say that which we know to be right: ‘Mr. President, you cannot plead the 5th Amendment to the American people.’ ”

Bennett, in his remarks, said he was speaking “as a citizen and a father,” not as a politician, in criticizing Clinton for not being more forthcoming about the allegations of a relationship with Lewinsky. “There is no gag order on the president,” he said, calling on Clinton to “stand up and tell the full truth” to get the case behind him.

Noting that many Americans seem willing to shrug off the charges against Clinton because they are satisfied with economic conditions, Bennett said: “Clinton’s effect on the economy has been overstated. His effect on our expectations of ourselves has been understated. He has led us downhill, but too many of us have been prepared to follow him.”

Forbes, who addressed the conference’s banquet Friday night, said: “The president’s silence [on the Lewinsky issue] is deafening . . . and speaks volumes as to where this is headed. If the president can’t find his voice here, he should step aside.

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