WASHINGTON - Beset by subliminal rats and perhaps by a mysterious mole, George W. Bush's campaign is scrambling to fend off suspicions that one of its employees shipped a debate-preparation videotape to the Democratic opposition.
A spokesman for the Texas governor urged federal agents to search the computers of at least two campaign employees of Vice President Al Gore's. And he strenuously denied suggestions floated by the FBI that the tape might have been leaked as a way to sabotage the presidential debates.
"That is completely silly," said the Bush spokesman, Dan Bartlett. "Whoever took these debate materials is not a supporter of Governor Bush's. Either they wanted to hurt Governor Bush or they wanted to help Al Gore. That much we know."
The mystery of the debate tape is threatening to become another distraction for Bush, just as the Republican candidate is recovering in the polls and focusing on issues that resonate with people.
Bush had managed to get through a rough patch of publicity capped by the allegation that the Republican National Committee had inserted a subliminal message in a TV ad critical of Gore's campaign that momentarily flashed the word "RATS."
Now, an FBI inquiry appears to be seeking a possible Gore mole in the Bush camp who might have tried to betray the governor, or a Bush staffer who wanted to frame Gore's campaign as having obtained stolen material. Accusations of "dirty tricks" are flying from both sides.
Bush campaign officials harshly questioned this week why the FBI appeared to be leaking news of its investigation, even though Bush's advisers have detailed the line of questioning they faced in their FBI interviews. And Democrats have expressed suspicion that the Bush campaign planted the video, pointing to what they say was a dirty trick 14 years ago involving Bush's chief strategist.
"They ought to just stop complaining about the FBI and cooperate and find out what the hell happened," said William M. Daley, Gore's campaign chairman.
The case centers on a packet of confidential Bush campaign material, including a videotaped practice debate and preparatory handbook, that was mailed to an old friend of Gore's, Tom Downey.
The package, with an Austin postmark, arrived Sept. 13. Downey, a former congressman who was to play the role of Bush in debate practice sessions with Gore, said he immediately gave the material to his attorney, Marc Miller, who turned it over to the FBI.
"We knew this was a hot potato," Miller said. "We knew that, whatever we did, it could at some point have consequences."
The first suspicions fell on the Gore camp after a low-level staff member boasted to a friend that the Gore campaign had a mole on the Bush team. The 28-year-old staff member, Michael Doyne, came forward to assert that it had just been a statement of bravado with no truth to it, and he was placed on administrative leave.
Fingers began pointing back to the Bush camp after news leaks suggested that federal investigators were zeroing in on an assistant to Mark McKinnon, Bush's media adviser. The assistant had been captured on a Postal Service security video camera while mailing a package in mid-September.
The aide, Yvette Lozano, told investigators that she had been returning a pair of $19.99 pants to the Gap that McKinnon had ordered over the Internet. McKinnon took the unusual step of appearing Wednesday on ABC's "Good Morning America" with a box from the Gap clothing chain to back his employee up.
But the FBI's line of questioning was revealed most starkly not by leaks from Washington but by remarks from McKinnon and Lozano.
"They had a theory that somebody mailed this as a way to blow up the debates," McKinnon told the Austin American-Statesman, "which is a ridiculous notion."
Democratic operatives have theorized that the Bush campaign might have wanted to sabotage the debates out of fear that their candidate would not compete well against Gore, a more experienced debater.
Lozano said an FBI agent told her, "It could be that you sent this information because you didn't want the debates to happen."
Bush campaign aides call that theory absurd. If they were trying to set up the Gore campaign, they say, why would they send an authentic tape of a Bush practice debate in August at his ranch near Crawford, Texas? And once Downey had the tape, how could the Bush campaign know that the tape would soon be brought to public attention?
A Democratic Party official said it would be easy. A Bush ally could have tipped a friendly reporter off to suggest a call to Downey. And had Downey kept the tape, even for a few hours, he would have either had to lie or confess. Mailing and tracking records could have surfaced to prove that the package had gone to Downey.
Texas Democrats are pointing their fingers at Karl Rove, Bush's chief strategist, who was embroiled in dirty-tricks accusations in 1986.
Back then, Rove, the chief strategist for Bill Clements, a Republican candidate for governor, had hired a private investigator who found an electronic bug in Rove's office. The Clements campaign insinuated that the campaign of Democratic Gov. Mark White had planted the bug. White's aides said they smelled a rat.
"I think this whole thing stinks, and I think that the wind is blowing from the Clements campaign," said White's media consultant, Mark McKinnon - the same Mark McKinnon who is working for Bush.
The charges and countercharges were never resolved. But they have re-emerged.
"As soon as I heard about this [videotape], I looked at my husband and said, 'This has Karl Rove's fingerprints all over it,'" said Molly Beth Malcolm, chairwoman of the Texas Democratic Party. "This does not pass the smell test."
Asked this week whether he was the "mole" who had sent the videotape, Rove replied, "No."
Most observers say they do not believe the brouhaha will have any political impact, unless someone is caught.