For GOP, a race against Hillary First lady rivals taxes, trade and abortion as hot button issue

Campaign 1996

February 20, 1996|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NASHUA, N.H. -- Whenever Patrick J. Buchanan introduces his wife, Shelley, he calls her "the individual I'm going to nominate to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton."

It is a guaranteed applause line. For the Republican presidential candidates, the first lady is proving to be a high-octane issue that rivals big government, trade, taxes and abortion for crowd appeal -- a sure-fire way to stir their audiences.

They don't even have to say her name. A mere reference to "health care" or "cattle futures" or "co-presidency" usually triggers derisive laughter or applause.

"Shelley's working on some changes in the White House travel office if you're interested in a job," Mr. Buchanan said with a hearty laugh at a recent rally of religious conservatives in Des Moines, Iowa.

At last week's debate in Manchester, N.H., Rep. Robert K. Dornan referred to the failures of "Clinton & Clinton in the White House." And Steve Forbes, attacking Lamar Alexander's financial dealings, said they made "Hillary Clinton look like a piker."

Just as the candidates are vying for the title of most conservative, they also are competing to portray their spouses as most unlike Mrs. Clinton.

In an interview, Mr. Forbes, the multimillionaire publisher, said his wife, Sabina, would be a "traditional" first lady in the mold of Barbara Bush. "She would not be working on health care," he said with his usual smile and head wobble.

Although Mr. Forbes introduces his wife as Sabina Forbes (pronounced Sa-BY-na) on the campaign trail, in television ads that ran in Iowa she was labeled "Mrs. Steve Forbes," a clear distinction from the first lady, who uses her maiden name as a middle name.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, too, has invoked Mrs. Clinton's activist role in the White House -- her spearheading of the administration's failed health care reform effort -- to contrast her with his own wife, Elizabeth.

"She will not handle health care," Mr. Dole said at a rally last evening in Milford, N.H., echoing a Republican refrain and evoking cheers. "I've already worked that out."

He has said at other times that Mrs. Dole's plan, if she becomes first lady, to continue working full time as president of the American Red Cross is a "powerful statement" for women. She would have her own job independent of the presidency, Mr. Dole said, and "she won't be hanging around the White House."

The wives, too, have been joining in the indirect digs at Mrs. Clinton. Mrs. Dole says frequently that she "will not be co-president." Honey Alexander says that as first lady of Tennessee she was more of an "ambassador."

"I didn't lobby for any legislation," she says. "I'm not interested at all in making policy decisions."

Neel Lattimore, a spokesman for the first lady, says there are no hard feelings resulting from the candidates' crowd-pleasing efforts to distance their wives from Mrs. Clinton.

"When they say, 'My wife isn't going to be a Hillary Clinton,' that's fine," Mr. Lattimore said. "Every first lady needs to be her own first lady. She needs to create her own job."

Still, never before has a first lady been so directly, and frequently, taken on as a campaign issue, says Lewis Gould, a history professor at the University of Texas who has written extensively about first ladies.

"To have it be a staple of oratory among the candidates does indicate their perception that Mrs. Clinton is a big minus for the president," he says.

Mr. Gould said, however, that he did not believe the attacks would be as vigorous in the general election campaign. The Republican nominee will then be seeking the support of more-moderate voters from the party, as opposed to the primary race, which attracts more conservatives.

He notes that in 1992, Republicans discovered that their attacks on Mrs. Clinton were "a losing card" because they alienated a significant number of Republican women.

But, Mr. Gould adds, Mrs. Clinton didn't have the baggage then that she has now -- everything from the health care debacle to her involvement in the firings of the White House travel office staff to Whitewater.

Silent among the Republicans' anti-Hillary voices has been Mr. Alexander, the former Tennessee governor whose highly profitable financial deals and investments are often likened by opponents to Mrs. Clinton's $100,000 commodities windfall and Whitewater land deal.

A Forbes ad that ran in Iowa and, until recently, in New Hampshire, said: "Who turned $1,000 into a $100,000 profit in cattle futures? Hillary Clinton. Who turned one dollar into $620,000? Lamar Alexander, the politician behind

the red flannel shirt."

Republicans have noted that if Mr. Alexander became the

Republican nominee, questions surrounding his investments would hamper their ability to use the Whitewater controversy and Mrs. Clinton's commodities profits to score political points against Mr. Clinton.

But Mr. Lattimore says the White House expects Mrs. Clinton to stay in the political cross-fire this year.

"Because of the role she's had -- a very visible role -- they'll use her one way or the other."

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