Candidates' Private Lives Face Intrusive Focus, Experts Fear

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Now that everything about President Clinton's sex life seems to be fair game, other politicians and candidates are girding for an ugly election year that could amount to open season on the private lives of public officials.

Many political professionals are worried that candidates' private lives will be subjected to a new, more intrusive level of examination during the 1998 midterm elections--and that the political establishment may not bear up well under the scrutiny.

"You can brace yourself for an ugly campaign season," said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. "We warned our candidates that you had better be prepared if there is anything you haven't told your family."

Clinton appears to be surviving--for now--the detailed public airing of his alleged marital infidelities. And, so far, the only other major figure affected by the current climate is Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who was recently forced by a magazine expose to acknowledge a long-term relationship with a woman not his wife.

But some fear that's just the beginning.

"I tell my candidates that those cameras focused on them have cross-hairs on them," said Phil Perington, Democratic Party chairman in Colorado. "There are hundreds of Roy Romer stories already in the can. They just drag them out when the time is right."

Others hope the frenzy over sex and politics won't spread much further. The public seems to be recoiling from the subject as a result of the Clinton controversy, and the risks to both parties are high.

"I do not think either party has an interest in making this a major theme in congressional races," said Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, noting that both Democrats and Republicans have skeletons in their closets. "It would be mutually assured destruction."

But some political consultants are still urging their clients to prepare for the worst. Lake said she advises candidates to tell all to their families, practice giving succinct answers to nosy questions and hire someone to research themselves and their spouses.

"I really encourage candidates to hire opposition researchers on themselves," said Lake. "It's important to find out what the opposition is going to find out about you."

The consequences of this heightened anxiety may be far-reaching. Some party officials say the hot spotlight on politicians' private lives is driving potential candidates away from public office.

"There is no allure to running for Congress," said Steve Anthony, executive director of the Democratic Party in Georgia, where the party has failed to field candidates against seven Republican incumbents. "The press has chilled people's desire to run for office."

For years, politicians and the media have generally treated issues like candidates' marital problems, alcoholism and other private foibles as off-limits--except when they reflected on their ability to carry out their public duties.

Those ground rules were tested when Gary Hart, as a candidate for the presidential nomination in 1988, dared reporters to catch him in the act of cheating on his wife. Clinton himself made his extramarital sex life a part of political debate in 1992 when he acknowledged "wrongdoing" and "causing pain in my marriage," televised remarks widely considered an admission that he had not been faithful to his wife.

In recent years, conservative Republicans who espouse family values have been an inviting target for criticism. Rep. Jon Christensen (R-Neb.), a favorite of Christian conservatives, was hit by negative publicity in the 1996 campaign when his marriage broke up and his wife admitted to infidelity. Last summer, Mike Bowers, former Republican attorney general of Georgia, hurt his campaign for governor when he disclosed a decade-long affair with an employee.

The key question about the coming campaign is whether the furor created by allegations about Clinton's sex life creates a climate in which allegations about other politicians' infidelities, divorces and the like will get more attention than they might otherwise.

The Romer controversy seems to be a case in point. Allegations that he had a long-standing affair with a political aide were published in the conservative magazine Insight, based on surveillance videos made two years ago. The magazine said it ran the story in part because of Romer's recent defense of Clinton. Romer, who had denied having a sexual relationship with the woman when it came up in his gubernatorial campaigns, held a press conference to say he had a "very affectionate" relationship with the woman but that it was not sexual.

The Clinton flap may also revive old questions about candidates' private lives. For example, Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) was recently asked on Iowa television about his divorce--an issue used against him in the 1996 campaign. Nussle said he didn't think the Clinton controversy would reignite it as a political issue. But Democrats think he is vulnerable.

"If you're going to ride the tiger of family values, then issues like that can matter because they can turn around and bite you," said Mike Peterson, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party.

Democrats may also dig into the private life of Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), Congress' leading proponent of impeaching Clinton. Past Democratic opponents have tried to make an issue out of Barr's two divorces, a dispute with one wife over medical expenses and other questions about whether he lives up to the moral values he espouses. State Democrats think that line of attack will be even more potent now that Barr is leading the charge against Clinton. They have not yet lined up a candidate to run against Barr, but when they do, "the gloves will come off," said Anthony.

"It's already started," Barr acknowledged in an interview. "But a large majority of people in the 7th District feel there are more important things."

Some political consultants argue that despite the current interest in Clinton's private life, such matters will not be major issues for other politicians come November. Some compare it to the time during the 1992 campaign when presidential candidates and others were asked if they had ever smoked marijuana: It created a brief, intense firestorm but had little effect on the elections.

"It's hard to think of a race in November 1992 that centered on, 'Did he or did he not take drugs?' " said GOP pollster Bill McInturff. "In this environment, it is hard for me to believe that a candidate's personal life is going to be salient. We haven't had 200 of our candidates in the last three weeks asked, 'Did you commit adultery?' "

Peter Fenn, a Democratic consultant, said the perception that the news media have gone too far investigating Clinton could redound to the benefit of other politicians.

"You may have a little backlash," said Fenn. "The public is just turning off to negative personal attacks. I think the candidates are now going to be in the position of saying, 'I am not answering that question.' "

But others remain concerned that the questions will keep being asked.

"I think it's hard for the press not to report these things if they come out in significant ways," said a Democratic pollster who asked not to be named. "There are going to be a lot of attempts by campaigns, under the table, to get reportage on other people's private lives out."

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