Hillary-bashing hot, but may be risky

August 20, 1992|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Staff Writer

HOUSTON -- Hillary Clinton, the outspoken, high-powered lawyer wife of the Democratic nominee, is competing with the Congress as the Republican Party's favorite campaign target.

Even Barbara Bush, who usually refrains from aiming darts at anyone but herself, has joined in the politically risky business of Hillary-bashing that Republicans here have been engaging in this week.

The first lady, who had previously denounced GOP Chairman Rich Bond for his attacks on Mrs. Clinton, now says his comments were justified. And yesterday, George Bush, too, said the views of the governor's wife are fair game since the Yale-trained lawyer and longtime children's advocate has "injected [herself] into the issue business."

Hillary Clinton, 44, has been portrayed by convention speakers all week, including last night by Pat Robertson, the TV evangelist, as a radical feminist who is a threat to traditional families.

At the Atlanta airport yesterday, Mr. Clinton lashed out against the Republicans' assault on his wife, calling it "a Willie Horton issue" -- this time targeting strong, independent women. In 1988, the Republicans used campaign ads featuring Horton, a black convict who brutalized a Maryland couple while on furlough from a Massachusetts prison, to villify the Democratic nominee, Michael S. Dukakis.

With all the focus on his wife, Mr. Clinton said of George Bush: "You'd think he was running for first lady."

The attacks on Mrs. Clinton seem to punctuate the Republicans' heralding of "family values," with the Democratic professional woman being portrayed as the antithesis of the popular Mrs. Bush, the caring, devoted wife, mother and grandmother who's become the virtual embodiment of traditional families.

"No one can convince me that the American people are so blind that they would replace Barbara Bush with Hillary Clinton," Mr. Robertson declared in his convention speech last night.

But some believe the spouse-attack strategy is a risky one, and even the Bush campaign, while acknowledging that Mrs. Clinton is a juicy target, is divided on whether to draw her into its line of fire.

"This campaign is focused on Bill Clinton," says James Cicconi, issues director for the Bush campaign. "We have no desire to be diverted into someone else's beliefs."

The Republicans also could alienate young, professional women, who will be uncomfortable with attacks on the candidate's spouse, others are suggesting.

"It's not just risky, it's bad judgment," says Ann Lewis, former political director of the Democratic National Committee. "The message this convention is sending over and over again to women is that the only acceptable, approved role is the '50s family -- being the wife in a one-earner family. To try to do anything else you risk everything from snide disapproval to outright bashing."

But yesterday, both Bushes seemed to signal to Republicans that they wouldn't object to making Mrs. Clinton's views an issue in the campaign.

"If you're out there on issues, taking your case to the people on issues, and you have an activist past, and you're a very aggressive lawyer . . . that is a little different than if you're not taking positions," Mr. Bush said last night, in an ABC interview with Peter Jennings.

The first lady, in reversing her views on the subject, told a PBS correspondent, Judy Woodruff, Tuesday night that she hadn't realized until recently that the Clintons had campaigned with a "buy one, get one free" slogan -- a line the Democrats used early on when they believed Mrs. Clinton's impressive resume would be an asset.

"I didn't realize that both the governor and Mrs. Clinton had both said that they were both going to be a co-presidency, and 'vote for him and get me for free'," Mrs. Bush said in comments she reiterated yesterday morning. "That makes it quite different."

A Clinton campaign adviser, Betsey Wright, says the Clintons have spoken of neither a "co-presidency" nor of assigning to Mrs. Clinton a Cabinet seat or any other official administration position.

Mrs. Clinton, until recently chair of the Children's Defense Fund, would serve in the White House as a sounding board, a support system for her husband and "as a strong spouse," Ms. Wright added.

Much of the attack on Mrs. Clinton, who offended some voters early on with her ambition, fierce independence and seeming disdain for homemakers, has focused on her legal essays of the late 1970s and early '80s related to children's legal rights.

In his speech on the opening night of the convention, Patrick J. Buchanan took on Mr. Clinton's "lawyer-spouse," echoing Mr. Bond's earlier charges when he asked, "What does Hillary believe?" Mr. Buchanan told the crowd that "Hillary believes that 12-year-olds should have a right to sue their parents, and she has compared marriage as an institution to slavery -- and life on an Indian reservation."

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