Clinton shows, for better or worse, he's a fighter ON POLITICS

Newswatch ... ON POLITICS

March 24, 1992|By Jack Germond And Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Ever since Michael Dukakis turned the other nTC cheek to George Bush's attacks in 1988, Democrats have been telling themselves, "Never again." Even Dukakis himself has said repeatedly since then that he made a colossal mistake in not hitting back when the Bush camxaign hung the Willie horton prison furlough case and other distortions around his neck.

Even so, many Democrats have been worried that if Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas is the 1992 Democratic nominee, the Bush campaign will clobber him on the allegations of personal misconduct that have shaken but not humbled his campaign to date. No doubt the effort will be made, but Clinton's behavior so far, not only defending himself but also attacking his opposition, indicates clearly that he is no pussycat.

All through the travails in New Hampshire regarding the charges of womanizing and draft-dodging, although his answers left something to be desired in candor, Clinton dealt with them head-on. And as his opponents in turn, first Sen. Bob Kerrey and then former Sen. Paul Tsongas and former Gov. Jerry Brown, argued that he was not electable as a result of the baggage he carried, Clinton fired right back at them.

Concerning Kerrey and Tsongas, Clinton was dealing at the time with opponents who were then seen as formidable competitors for the presidential nomination, so his attacks on(them were not very surprising, especially in this era when negative advertising is looked upon as the best, quickest way to take an opponent down.

But when Tsongas dropped out of the race last week, leaving Brown as the only active challenger to Clinton, there were hopeful calls that the time had come for the healing of intraparty wounds and refocusing the campaign on President Bush.

To be sure, it was expected that Brown would continue to wage political guerrilla warfare against Clinton and the whole political process as a means of building his reform movement. But surely Clinton was in so commanding a position that he would deal with Brown by simply ignoring him, while planning for the fall.

That thinking, however, did not properly consider the toughness of a candidate and a campaign forged by the hard knocks it had sustained. At the close of the Democratic primary in Connecticut, the Clinton campaign unleashed a scathing television ad against Brown that said:

"Jerry Bron says he'll fioht for 'We the People.' Question is, which people? He says he's for working families, but his tax proposal has been called a 'flat-out fraud.' It cuts taxes for the very rich in half and raises taxes on the middle class. Jerry Brown says he'll clean up politics and limit campaign contributions, but a year ago he helped lead the fight that killed campaign reform and contribution limits in California. So the next time Jerry Brown says he's fighting for the people, ask him which people -- and which Jerry Brown?"

During the commercial, Brown was seen looking left, then right, giving a flip-flop effect. The narrator refers to Brown's call for a 13 percent flat tax on income to replace nearly all existing taxes and to his opposition as state party chairman in California to a voter referendum on limiting contributions -- a limit he now imposes on his own campaign in the name of reform.

It could be argued that this ad was run out of Clinton's personal pique at Brown charging that he was "funneling" state contracts to the law firm of his wife, Hillary. But more likely it is a reflection of a mind-set in a campaign that has been hit often and hard and has steeled itself, determined to give as good as it gets.

This approach may be seen by some as swatting a fly with a sledgehammer, but until Clinton actually has the Democratic nomination in hand, it is clear from this anti-Brown ad that his buffeted campaign is not going to take anything for granted. The task of healing wounds within the party can come later.

The risk in beating up on Jerry Brown is not, anyway, one that is likely to set regular Democrats to gnashing their teeth. They regard Brown, as a questioner to Clinton put it recently, as "a pain in the you-know-what" and himself a threat to party unity.

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