SAN DIEGO -- In advance of Wednesday night's final presidential debate, the word from the campaign of Bob Dole was that he would go aggressively after President Clinton on the issues of trust and character.
In a speech here the day before the debate, he told of "more than 30 Clinton officials investigated, fired or forced to resign due to ethical improprieties," and ticked off a series of scandals involving the administration.
He pointedly observed that "we have seen the president dangle the prospect of a pardon for a convicted felon who may be able to implicate him" -- a specific reference to Mr. Clinton's failure in the first debate to say categorically that he would not pardon Susan MacDougal, his one-time associate in the Whitewater real-estate venture.
In the same speech, he talked of "new charges that this administration has allowed a wealthy Indonesian family to buy presidential access, and play a role in foreign policy, in exchange for contributions to the Democratic National Committee."
These comments gave encouragement to Republican partisans who had been screaming for Mr. Dole to go after the president hammer and tongs. The senator made an effort, but a combination of his own cryptic and tentative debating style, and the debate's town-meeting format, reduced his attack to a series of disjointed jabs that Mr. Clinton rather effortlessly brushed off.
From Mr. Dole's opening statement, in which he complained that his views "have been distorted" by "millions of dollars in negative advertising," to unspecific references of "scandals" and "ethical problems in the White House" and violations of the public trust, he never delivered the kind of detailed indictment his partisans had hoped for.
His reference to the pardon question probably was mystifying to voters who have not been following the Whitewater case. He said merely that "the president ought to say tonight that he's not going to pardon anybody that he was involved in business with who might implicate him later on." The remark came at a point under the format when Mr. Clinton did not have to reply, and he didn't.
Again, when a questioner asked about ways to increase public participation in elections and President Clinton made a pitch for campaign-finance reform, Senator Dole threw in a quick line about "contributions coming in from Indonesia," without providing any context or detail. Mr. Clinton let that one go by without comment, too.
Cranky and waspish
Senator Dole came off too often as cranky and waspish, especially compared to the unflappable Mr. Clinton. Furthermore, he did little to provide specifics about the 15 percent tax cut that is supposed to be a centerpiece of his campaign, nor did he offer a convincing answer about how he would achieve it and a balanced budget at the same time.
Going into the final debate, the popular consensus was that Mr. Dole would have to make a serious dent in the president's credibility as a trustworthy leader to narrow his consistent deficit in all the polls. With less than three weeks to go to Election Day, he must do a better job going after what he apparently perceives is Mr. Clinton's Achilles' heel.
He did show that he could attack on a legitimate issue of trust in the presidency without veering into matters of personal conduct that have clouded the president's reputation. But he will have to make his case on trust in greater detail on the stump than he did in the final debate.
Historically, voters pay greater attention to what candidates say in the final weeks. Crowds usually are bigger and press and television coverage more concentrated. But in the last debate Senator Dole probably missed his best single opportunity to plant the kind of doubt about Mr. Clinton that he needs for success.
Had the debate not had the town-meeting format, moderator Jim Lehrer, a man of keen political savvy as well as good manners, DTC might have brought the trust issue into better focus and the president might have had to respond. But the format made it too easy for him to slip Mr. Dole's best punches, which weren't all that hard anyway.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 10/18/96