WASHINGTON -- President Clinton and his Republican challenger, Bob Dole, used gracious and folksy back-to-back appearances last night on cable television to try to smooth over the rough spots in their respective campaigns.
Clinton, appearing on MSNBC, the new cable and Internet service, took on the issue of Whitewater, dismissing polls that suggest that a majority of Americans do not believe that he and his wife are telling the whole truth about it. The president asserted that the Whitewater investigation has been "highly politicized."
Dole brought along his wife, Elizabeth, in an appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live" to help him joke and explain away a series of embarrassing campaign missteps over the past two weeks. During the hourlong program, Dole also announced that Rep. Susan Molinari of New York, a 38-year-old rising Republican star who supports abortion rights, would be the keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention.
Dole then beeped Molinari, who was having dinner with her husband, Rep. Bill Paxon, in Buffalo, N.Y., and had her call in the program so he could break the news of her selection.
The Republican candidate also said he would include a tax cut in an economic package he expects to propose later in the summer.
The cable duel, during which each candidate performed at his relaxed best, marked another benchmark in the 1996 presidential contest: the beginning of their outreach to audiences beyond traditional media outlets.
Last night's performances also marked advances in communications technology since the presidential race four years ago. Clinton took questions not only from his interviewer, Tom Brokaw, and telephone callers who raised a variety of topics; he was also quizzed by e-mail via the Internet.
Despite his sizable lead in public-opinion polls, which exceeds 20 points in some polls, Clinton has been dogged by suspicions that he and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, have tried to cover up their involvement in the network of transactions known as Whitewater.
In reply to questions on the issue last night, Clinton said evidence uncovered by the Whitewater special prosecutor, Kenneth W. Starr, and by congressional committees "fails to demonstrate any wrongdoing by either one of us."
Asked about polls that show most Americans do not believe his explanations, the president said: "I think the American people are fair-minded. They've heard a lot more negative than positive."
He declined, however, to take a shot at Dole, who is making character an issue in the race. On the contrary, the president pointedly paid tribute to his rival.
"I believe he really loves our country," Clinton said. "He was hurt very badly in World War II. He could have been embittered. He could have walked away."
The president also complimented the prospective Republican nominee for his support "when I had to do unpopular things" in the foreign policy arena, even when the former Senate majority leader did not completely agree with him.
Similarly gracious, Dole declined to attack Clinton in any personal way, saying the two men have a good relationship and he wanted to stick to issues.
In fact, the Republican candidate focused on doing a repair job on his own campaign.
"I've made enough mistakes in the past few weeks to last a month or two," Dole joked. "Like to get them out of the way."
The Doles' appearance on the Larry King program came after two weeks of clumsy campaign missteps that prompted even one of the candidate's closest allies to criticize him openly.
That ally is Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York, a close friend who is chairman of Dole's National Advisory Committee. In an interview with the New York Post published yesterday, D'Amato faulted Dole for failing to attend the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's convention last week, for changing his stance on the abortion plank in the Republican platform, and for suggesting that cigarette smoking may not always be addictive.
Another commotion was touched off last week by Dole's announcement that he no longer supports a repeal of the 1994 ban on some assault weapons. The candidate said he believed the nation had moved beyond such a debate, a statement vague enough that its political appeal to the majority of voters who support gun control may well have been lost.
Within the party, there is widespread concern that such gaffes, a combination of strategic mistakes by the campaign and flubs by the candidate, have prevented Dole from eroding Clinton's commanding lead in public opinion polls.
Instead, that lead appears to have grown. A poll conducted last weekend for the new cable news operation MSNBC showed Clinton leading by 24 percentage points -- 54 percent for the president, to 30 percent for Dole.
The outspoken D'Amato, often among the first to go public with what others in his party are saying privately, lamented what he said were fumbled chances to energize the campaign.
"In my opinion, [Dole] lost a unique opportunity to make a very powerful statement to the NAACP on the need for everyone to come together in opposition to intolerance, to anyone who would attack our churches, our sanctuaries of worship," D'Amato told the Post.
Dole said initially that he could not attend the convention because of a scheduling conflict. Later, he asserted that the president of the NAACP, Kweisi Mfume, whom Dole called "a leading liberal Democrat," had tried to "set me up" with the invitation to speak to the civil rights group.
Last night, Dole said that if he had it to do over again he "probably would have" attended the NAACP convention.
Dole's choice of Molinari as keynote speaker seemed an effort to appeal to some of the constituent groups with which he may be weak. "It's a big statement about cities, a big statement about women," he said.
It is also a big statement for supporters of abortion rights who are miffed at Dole's wavering moves on the party platform.
D'Amato said he was unhappy that the candidate had reversed his earlier pledge to include a "tolerance of dissent" passage in the anti-abortion plank of the Republican Party's platform.
With many Republicans in sharp disagreement with one another on the emotional issue of abortion, Dole was bound to make some Republicans unhappy no matter what he did. But his retreat on the tolerance pledge -- it would now be included as a separate plank that applies to a host of issues, not just abortion -- could leave him open to the charges of inconsistency he levels at Clinton.
Dole's comments on tobacco, which at one point seemed to put him at odds with former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, were attributed by D'Amato to a mistaken "generational perception."
Pub Date: 7/16/96