HOUSTON -- President Bush says he won't put up with that sleazy stuff about marital infidelity. Anyone who engages in that kind of politics is supposed to be history.
But when Robert Mosbacher, the former secretary of commerce now serving as general chairman of his campaign, said that the marital fidelity record of Democratic nominee Bill Clinton "should be one of the yardsticks" by which he is measured, Bush settled for an apology. The same was true after Treasurer of the United States Catalina V. Villalpando referred to Clinton and one of his senior advisers, former San Antonio Mayor Henry G. Cisneros, as "two skirt-chasers campaigning together."
Nor did the president seem offended when Vice President Dan Quayle evoked wild applause from a religious right audience by saying in tones of heavy derision: "You know you're making progress when Bill Clinton talks about family values."
This apparently is the way the Republicans intend to handle the "sleaze factor" -- that is, either with innuendo that maintains deniability, as in Quayle's case, or with abject apologies after the fact, as in the Mosbacher and Villalpando cases and others earlier in the campaign.
No one would argue that President Bush and his campaign managers can control everything that every Republican says or does in the campaign ahead. They cannot necessarily be blamed, for example, for the delegates wearing buttons bearing the legend: "Don't let Slick Willie do a Gennifer Flowers on you."
But Dan Quayle and Robert Mosbacher are not rank-and-file Republicans, and their use of the issue Bush keeps calling "sleaze" is clearly not accidental or easy to explain away. What it suggests is that the campaign leadership is convinced that the conventional wisdom is correct and that Bush's chances of winning a second term depend heavily on tearing down Clinton.
There are, nonetheless, clear risks in this cute approach. The opinion polls show, first, that the marital fidelity "issue" is not one that most voters consider pertinent, although it is obviously important to Bush's core of support among Protestant fundamentalists. And the polls also show an electorate alert to the kind of negative campaigning that Bush used so effectively four years ago when he depicted Michael S. Dukakis as lacking in both patriotism and backbone.
Because of that context, it is almost impossible for even innuendo to pass without the press making a federal case out of it, even if the Clinton campaign would rather see the whole issue forgotten. And given the relish with which the press pursued the Gennifer Flowers story last winter, the Bush campaign cannot meet complaints about its tactics with its usual press-bashing, as popular as that may be among the delegates gathered here.
This does not suggest there are not issues from Clinton's past that can be used legitimately by the Republicans. His record as governor of Arkansas is clearly within bounds for the Republicans. His private business affairs can be scrutinized just as can those of the president who claims a hotel suite as his home address. The fact that Clinton chose to avoid the draft in the Vietnam War may give a legitimate insight into his thinking as one of thousands of young men who did the same thing at that time.
But the marital fidelity matter is questionable both in terms of its accuracy and its fairness and relevance. Although Clinton and his wife, Hillary, have admitted to "difficulties" in their marriage, the Democratic nominee has specifically denied the charges of Gennifer Flowers, just as the president has denied an account of a similar relationship with a woman on his staff. And, as those polls show, most voters seem willing to leave it at that.
The operative question, however, is whether President Bush is willing to follow through on the angry denunciation of those who would raise the issues again, as he did when he chastised a reporter for bringing it up in the sanctified Oval Office. At the moment, though, the Bush campaign seems to want to have it both ways -- piously denouncing dirty politics while seeing to it that the issue remains on the voters' minds.
The president and vice president and their surrogates are putting heavy emphasis on "family values" -- meaning their definition of how Americans should conduct their lives. And they are entitled to make their case that the the values of the presidential candidates are a legitimate standard in this campaign. But what kind of values are implied by the use of innuendo and sneak attacks?
As President Bush sets out to duplicate the 1948 comeback of President Harry S. Truman by running against Congress as he did, consideration is being given to another Truman gambit -- calling Congress back into session before the election.
Congress, in recess now, is scheduled to go back after Labor Day for about a month or more. But with so many incumbents under fire this year, there will be much pressure from them to fold up and get back home to try to save their own seats.
Such an "October Surprise," however, would run the danger of being so politically transparent that it might backfire on Mr. Bush. Nevertheless, his campaign strategists have already decided to make the Democratic-controlled Congress a prime target, not in hopes of electing a Republican majority, but rather to allege that serious attempts by Mr. Bush to bring about change have been thwarted by Democratic partisanship.
The focus of attack on the Democratic Congress is further seen in two television ads trotted out by the the National Republican Congressional Committee here. They argue that if voters want change, they should look to Congress, not the White House.