SAN DIEGO -- In a likely preview of tonight's final presidential debate, Bob Dole came out swinging harder than ever yesterday, charging that the Clinton administration is riddled with "ethical failures."
Still trailing in most polls by double-digit points, the Republican nominee has been widely urged to turn tougher on ethics issues in the debate -- Dole's last chance to reach a large national television audience.
In what amounted to a tryout before tonight's performance, Dole made clear yesterday that he was ready to oblige.
"No administration has been more self-righteous," Dole told a gathering of electronics industry executives here. "But few administrations have been more self-serving. No administration has shown more arrogance. But few have displayed more ethical failures."
Recalling President Clinton's 1992 promise to lead "the most ethical administration in the history of the Republic," Dole ran through a litany of alleged abuses by the president or his aides that have been investigated in the past four years.
Dole listed investigations by four independent counsels of Cabinet members and "more than 30 Clinton officials investigated, fired, or forced to resign due to ethical improprieties." He cited the collection of FBI files on Republican officials by Clinton political operatives, the firing of longtime White House travel office employees and the use of a Marine helicopter for a Clinton staff golf outing.
He also mentioned new allegations that the administration has allowed companies controlled by a wealthy Indonesian family to buy presidential access and influence, in exchange for campaign contributions.
In addition, the Republican nominee charged that Clinton has been "dangling" the possibility of granting presidential pardons for defendants in the Whitewater case who "may be able to implicate him." "If the polls are believed," Dole said, "some voters seem ready to support Bill Clinton, even though they believe he is unethical. I want to ask these voters to step back and consider for a moment: A president who has betrayed your trust has not won your vote."
Clinton professed unconcern yesterday about Dole's stepped-up aggressiveness. But the president took exception to the Republican's charge that Clinton refuses to accept responsibility for the failings of his administration.
"Senator Dole takes the position that if it is good, I didn't have anything to do with it; and if it's bad, I must have stayed up all night planning it," the president told reporters in Albuquerque, N.M., where he has been preparing for the debate. "But that's just politics, and we'll see some more of that, I'm sure."
Vice President Al Gore, campaigning in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., responded more sharply.
Referring to Dole's promise of a 15 percent tax cut, Gore charged, "Someone who is willing to put at risk the entire American economy has no business talking about integrity as an issue in the campaign."
Dole's decision to challenge Clinton on ethics now comes after he passed up an invitation to raise such issues in the first debate and after his vice presidential running mate, Jack Kemp, suggested in his own debate with Gore that it would be "beneath Bob Dole's dignity" to do so.
But many Dole supporters expressed frustration that Clinton seemed to be getting a pass on ethical issues that polls show are his greatest weakness.
"This election is essentially a referendum on the incumbent, so Dole has to make the case that the incumbent should be retired," said David Keene, a longtime Dole adviser. But Dole, who has long had to battle a public image as mean and ill-tempered -- an image that friends say is much harsher than the reality -- doesn't want to reinforce negative perceptions in what may be the last view many Americans have of him.
"I like to win, but there are certain limits," Dole said in an interview last week on ABC News' "Nightline."
"I can't see myself getting into the mud here in the last three weeks. Whatever happens, I want to be at peace with myself when it's over."
Wrestling for weeks over how to strike a balance, the Dole camp divided the material it could use against Clinton into two categories: Anything strictly personal or that occurred before Clinton became president in 1993 is off-limits. But matters that raise questions of whether Clinton abused the public trust while in the White House are fair game.
"I have never questioned anyone's private character, and I will not start now," Dole said yesterday. "People are not perfect, and public service does not require them to be perfect. But there is a difference between private character and public ethics, because public ethics is a public trust."
The format of tonight's debate could make it difficult for Dole to challenge Clinton directly on these issues. Rather than working exclusively through a moderator, the candidates will take part in a talk-show-style debate and will take questions from ordinary Americans in the audience.
The president's advisers are preparing for the encounter by simultaneously trying to get him to relax while seeking to thicken his skin. Aides fret that Clinton, who bristles visibly at personal criticism, might become agitated in anticipation of Dole's broadsides.
Former Sen. George J. Mitchell, who has been playing the role of Dole in mock debates, has taken the highly combative line that he expects from the Republican.
It was hard to tell from the audience reaction here yesterday how effective Dole's new tactic might be. The Electronics Industry Association members were a sympathetic crowd who said in a straw poll that they backed Dole by a margin of 68 percent to 29 percent. Yet the crowd was mostly silent as Dole hammered away.
Regardless of what Dole does, operatives in his campaign and other analysts wonder whether tonight's meeting can sharply alter the course of the race.
"Polls tell us that most people have already made up their minds about the election, and there's not much flexibility there," said George C. Edwards, head of the center on presidential studies at Texas A&M; University.
At the same time, pollsters say much of Clinton's support is soft -- that voters are not so much enamored of him as uninspired by Dole. Surveys also show that one area in which Dole leads Clinton is on matters of trust and character.
"I still wake up every morning feeling optimistic," said Gary Koops, a Dole spokesman. "Just some days more than others."
Place: Shiley Theater, University of San Diego.
Time: 9 p.m. to 10: 30 p.m.
Moderator: Jim Lehrer of PBS.
TV Coverage: ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS will broadcast live. On cable, CNN, C-SPAN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC also will carry live.
Format: Town hall style with a moderator. Lehrer will randomly select questioners from the 120 men and women from San Diego County who have been invited to watch the final presidential debate. The audience will be seated on five tiers surrounding President Clinton and Republican Bob Dole, who will stand in the center of the room. Lehrer is allowed to ask for a question on a certain topic and he can hone or sharpen a question once it is asked.
Pub Date: 10/16/96