LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- It's a measure of the strong hand that Democrats believe they hold this year that they feel free to criticize the once untouchable Ronald Reagan, embrace the once invisible Jimmy Carter and try to turn attacks on marital infidelity into points for their side.
As Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton is home in the state capital watching the Republicans meet in Houston, he has authorized his campaign to use every opening to blunt the GOP message this week.
Probably the toughest job is to turn attacks against Mr. Clinton's character into positive points, but a fresh promise by President Bush to fire any of his operatives who dealt in personal attacks provided some ammunition.
Robert Mosbacher, general chairman of the Bush-Quayle campaign, said Sunday in a breakfast meeting with reporters that allegations about Mr. Clinton's infidelity "should be one of the yardsticks" in judging candidates.
Also Sunday, U.S. Treasurer Catalina Villalpando called Mr. Clinton and the Democrats' newly named liaison to Hispanic voters, former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, "two skirt-chasers."
George Stephanopoulos, Mr. Clinton's communications director, cited Mr. Bush's statement in a Time magazine interview this week that he would not tolerate such attacks.
He called on Mr. Bush to fire the pair, saying it would be a test if Mr. Bush can be trusted "to keep his word, or if he's just a hollow man running a very hypocritical, very cynical campaign."
In Houston, the Bush-Quayle campaign rushed out two statements in which Ms. Villalpando apologized and Mr. Mosbacher said he was misunderstood.
Mr. Clinton, however, said he saw the episode as another "wink and a nod deal" by the Republicans.
"It's amazing how many times [Mr. Bush] says that this has no place in the campaign and then his people come back with it," he said in the statehouse, where he worked on some state business. "It's all they know how to do. They can't help it."
Meanwhile, Democrats acted as if they couldn't have been happier to have Mr. Reagan star on the first night of the GOP convention.
"I think he can give the Clinton campaign a bounce," Mr. Stephanopoulos said.
Polls show the once invulnerable Mr. Reagan now ranks lower in public esteem than the once widely vilified Mr. Carter, the last Democratic president.
In fact, only 30 percent of American voters regard Mr. Reagan positively, and he holds the highest negative ratings of any national figure today, according to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.
Mr. Clinton said Mr. Reagan was the "appropriate" choice to kick off the convention. "It reinforces the fact that we're living with the consequences of 12 years of their policies and that in effect they're asking for a fourth term."
While Mr. Reagan's ratings have dropped, Mr. Carter, the man Mr. Reagan beat in 1980, is viewed favorably by 41 percent of U.S. voters, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll said.
Tomorrow, the day that Republicans will celebrate family values in Houston, the Clintons and the Gores will be in Atlanta with the Carters. The couples will work together building a house for a poor family, one of the charitable projects that has raised the the president's popularity.