Dole raises the character issue in talk to state GOP chairmen Allusions to Whitewater among attacks on Clinton

June 02, 1996|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- After months of building up to it, Bob Dole hit the character issue dead on yesterday, saying President Clinton's honesty has been called into question by his own actions.

"I am not in this race to discuss Bill Clinton's character," the Republican presidential contender told a gathering of state GOP chairmen. "But every time Bill Clinton says one thing and does another he puts his character and credibility on the table. And the harsh light of public scrutiny will not be kind."

In a rousing, often humorous address that left Republican state party leaders energized about the contest ahead, Dole made his first, thinly veiled reference to last week's guilty verdict by a Little Rock, Ark., jury against Clinton's former business partners in the Whitewater deal.

"I want to be president because I want to restore integrity to our government a mission that's more important this week than even a week ago," he said. "The American people deserve nothing less than 100 percent honesty from their president."

The allusion was intended to capitalize on what Republicans see as independent confirmation that the Whitewater scandal involves more than trumped-up charges, although Clinton was not directly implicated in the issues of the trial.

The Arkansas convictions, which are expected to ensure that the Whitewater issue stays hot through the November election, were viewed in the Dole camp as perhaps the best break its candidate has gotten so far.

But the major focus of Dole's remarks yesterday was on Clinton's tendency to continually shift his position on issues, often publicly embracing Republican positions, then not following through to ensure they become law. Dole advisers believe voter disappointment at what they charge is Clinton's failure to make good on his promises may ultimately prove his greatest weakness.

"He finds out I'm giving a speech on welfare reform, then claims he's been for it all along. He hears my proposals on juvenile crime, then rushes forward a couple days later and calls for curfews for teen-agers," Dole said of the president.

"I wouldn't be surprised if he walks in now to speak to this group," he added, drawing gales of laughter.

Actually, Dole said, "Bill Clinton is the rear guard of the welfare state, and the champion of the Great Society status quo." Clinton advisers have concluded, Dole said, that the "real Bill Clinton -- the Bill Clinton who raised taxes, tried to nationalize health care and appointed a surgeon general who wanted to legalize marijuana can't get re-elected. So Bill Clinton has been reinvented, again."

The Clinton campaign dismissed Dole's charges as a sign of desperation.

"Having tried to talk issues out on the road and having found that it didn't work, he comes back to Washington and escalates his negative campaign," said Ann Lewis, deputy manager of the Clinton campaign.

Dole's address came after a hectic four-day campaign swing through Colorado, California, Illinois and Ohio. It reflected in part the candidate's frustration with the efficiency of the Clinton message machine.

Not only does the president often make pre-emptive strikes on Dole issues, but Democratic Party operatives seem to be always on the scene of Dole appearances, making sure reporters get a speedy Clinton response.

When the Dole entourage pulled into a Cincinnati Holiday Inn late Thursday night, for example, officials of the Ohio Democratic Party were already there with a statement rebutting a speech the GOP candidate planned to give at a high school the next morning on drug use.

The news release duel set off a nasty battle of one-upmanship, in which Democrats attacked Dole for voting against the 1994 crime bill, which includes many of the anti-crime programs he has been trumpeting in his speeches as Republican innovations.

Dole fired back by unearthing statements of praise from Clinton and others for Dole's work on elements of the crime bill, such as increased funds to combat domestic violence.

The Senate Republican leader voted against the final product, saying that other parts were too extreme.

But, for the most part, the trip was a good one for Dole that gave him more confidence as a campaigner and boosted his spirits when he found himself able to connect with his audiences.

"Traveling across America, I can feel the tide turning," he said yesterday. Dole told reporters Friday he believes Clinton's lead, which had soared to 20 percentage points in some polls, has slipped to about 10 to 12 percentage points.

Dole's focus on the character issue was buttressed by Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, who chose the same theme for the GOP response to the president's weekly radio address.

"Leading a country is like rearing a child," said the GOP congressman, who made no direct reference to Clinton but who heads the Whitewater investigation in the House.

"It requires honesty and self-discipline. It is not enough for politicians to advocate good causes; they must lead by example. Character matters."

Pub Date: 6/02/96

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