GOP strategists signal intent to go negative


HOUSTON -- If you listen to the hot rhetoric at the Republican convention long enough, you can get a clear picture of the lines of attack President Bush intends to take against Democratic nominee Bill Clinton through the rest of the campaign. Those lines fall into two clearly defined categories. The Bush strategists see Mr. Clinton as vulnerable both on his personal history and on his policies and performance as governor of Arkansas for 12 years. But the operative question is which group of issues will be emphasized. And the answer depends quite simply on what works.

The Republicans also must ask themselves which issues risk a backlash from an electorate that may be far different from 1988 in its susceptibility to negative campaigning.

What is most strikingly missing from the Republican litany so far is a set of positive proposals for the next four years. That will have to wait at least until Mr. Bush's acceptance speech tomorrow night.

But the clear, if unstated, premise of Republican strategists at this point is that their prospects for Nov. 3 rest largely on "going negative" on Mr. Clinton as they did four years ago against Michael S. Dukakis and, by so doing, raise Mr. Bush's own positives.

Despite Mr. Bush's insistence that he will not countenance the use of "sleaze," it is clear the Republicans intend to continue raising the question of marital infidelity, even if only obliquely enough to maintain some deniability. That was apparent when the vice president evoked cheers of delegates from the religious right when he observed in heavily derisive tones: "You know you're making progress when Bill Clinton talks about family values."

It is also reasonable to expect more pointed, direct attacks on Mr. Clinton as a womanizer, despite the president's lofty position, but principally by surrogates some distance from the Oval Office.

"Of course, we're going to use it," a leading strategist said privately. "You think we're going to give up something that juicy."

The second personal issue -- and one the Republicans believe they can use more openly -- is Mr. Clinton's history of avoiding the draft during the Vietnam War. The Bush strategists are convinced there is political gold, particularly although not exclusively in the South and far West, in the young Clinton's description of himself as "loathing the military," a phrase he used in the infamous letter to the ROTC colonel whose help he sought in avoiding the draft. That is likely to show up in Republican commercials sooner rather than later.

A third issue in this group is the focus on the views of Hillary Clinton, whose negatives in opinion polls have convinced GOP operatives that she makes a vulnerable target as a liberal, non-traditional woman, particularly compared with Barbara Bush. The Republican operatives don't know how this will play because there is no precedent, but their theory is that they can simply monitor the polls.

On the more substantive side, the issues that the Republicans believe have the greatest sting are Mr. Clinton's record as governor, Democratic vice presidential nominee Al Gore's environmental views, Mr. Clinton's positions on taxes and spending, and his inexperience in foreign policy.

Many Democratic professionals agree that their candidate's performance in Arkansas can be difficult to defend, not because he wasn't an effective governor but because the state remains so poor, and is so small and different from states with big population centers. Polling in California and New York has shown some resistance to Southern politicians, although Mr. Clinton currently leads in both states by large margins.

The attack on Mr. Clinton on domestic policy will center on the economic program he outlined several months ago, one Mr. Bush has translated into a call for the "biggest tax increase" in history, a characterization impossible to either prove or disprove simply because Mr. Clinton has not been that specific. The Republican message, quite simply, is that the Arkansas Democrat is in fact a closet liberal.

The environment issue is a complex one because it is Mr. Gore rather than Mr. Clinton whose views make him vulnerable to being called an "environmental extremist" who would sacrifice jobs for spotted owls. Indeed, some Republican strategists believe they would be wiser to leave this one alone.

The foreign policy issue is the usual attempt of an incumbent to depict a challenger as too great a risk to be entrusted with life-or-death decisions as commander in chief. This line may have lost some of its viability with the end of the Cold War, but there is a long history of voters being nervous about changing horses.

So far, the attempts by the Bush campaign to use these various lines of attack have been blunted in part by Mr. Clinton's restraint in dealing with them.

When his wife was attacked, for example, he simply called it "pitiful" evidence of a lack of substance in the GOP campaign. On foreign policy, Mr. Clinton has been careful to support Mr. Bush's policy positions on Bosnia and Iraq, while giving gentle nudges toward positions many of Mr. Bush's fellow Republicans support.

In the end, the critical question is whether Mr. Bush can get away with a largely negative campaign at a time when there is such pervasive concern with the economy running through the electorate.

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