Down to their final strike, the Republicans count on 'character'


WASHINGTON -- No one who knows Jack Kemp was surprised by his Johnny-one-note focus on the tax issue during his debate with Vice President Al Gore. His remedy for a head cold is supply-side economics to expand the economy.

In this case, however, Mr. Kemp's single-minded concentration was revealing in quite a different way. It showed that the Republicans really don't have any conventional issues they can use effectively against President Clinton. And that means that the hints Bob Dole has begun sending about attacking President Clinton on his character are likely to turn tougher.

Mr. Kemp's performance shows how few handholds the Republicans have found. Whether asked about affirmative action the environment, education or Medicare, he argued that lower tax rates would produce the capital to solve the problem. He did make a lame attempt to criticize Mr. Clinton's conduct of foreign policy, but never produced any specific supporting evidence beyond such slogans as "weakness is provocation."

Meanwhile, Mr. Gore was adamantly dissecting the flaws in what he repeatedly called Senator Dole's "risky tax scheme." Opinion polls show voters have decided in overwhelming numbers that the plan to reduce taxes 15 percent isn't credible.

The problem for the Republican ticket is quite simple. The country is at peace and the economy is healthy, so the voters see no reason to change presidents and elect a 73-year-old man who has spent his entire working life as a politician.

But the polls that continue to show Mr. Clinton with a lead of 15 to 20 percentage points also continue to show some reservations in the electorate about his personal qualities. For Republicans strategists, this qualifies as an opening that Senator Dole must exploit in their second and final presidential -- debate at San Diego and for the rest of the campaign.

The flaw in that approach, however, is that the voters are unusually resistant this year to negative campaigning. And Mr. Dole has spent the entire campaign trying to overcome the reputation he had acquired, justifiably or not, as a partisan hatchet man. He had enough success in improving his image in the first debate so that, as Mr. Kemp said at St. Petersburg, "it is beneath Bob Dole to go after anyone personally."

A politician's first duty

But, as Adlai Stevenson once observed, it is the first duty of any politician to get elected. And the Republican nominee has been sending strong signals all week that he is under heavy pressure to use the "character issue" against the president during the rest of the campaign.

What issue might be effective? Mr. Dole can remind voters that Bill Clinton ducked the draft during the Vietnam War and smoked marijuana without inhaling while a student in England. But the voters already knew about those things when they elected Mr. Clinton in the first place.

Similarly, he can hardly return to the Gennifer Flowers or Paula Jones "issues" without being accused of irrelevance as well as dirty politics. That leaves the Whitewater controversy and the various "gates" -- "travelgate" and "filegate" and the like. But, although there are valid questions to be answered in these matters, there has been no evidence of Mr. Clinton's culpability.

It is too late for the Republicans to hope that special prosecutor Kenneth Starr can rescue them with some eleventh-hour grand jury findings. At this point, anything of that kind is likely to be seen as a late smear and cause a backlash.

From the outset, the burden on the Republicans has been to present the electorate with a picture of how Americans would be better off with Bob Dole in the White House over the next four years. That was what they hoped to achieve with the grand plan for the 15 percent tax reduction.

But Senator Dole has failed to do that. And Mr. Kemp's focus on the same issue throughout his debate with Vice President Gore was never convincing. Now the Republicans are down to their last match.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 10/11/96

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