Despite scandals, Clinton is ahead Other issues override character question in '96, analysts discover

Campaign 1996

September 15, 1996|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- When Bill Clinton took the oath as the 42nd president of the United States, he promised "the most ethical administration" in history.

Instead, the country has witnessed a steady drumbeat of scandal: Whitewater. Huge profits in cattle futures. Paula Corbin Jones' sexual harassment suit. Travel office firings. Filegate. Dick Morris' prostitute. Mike Espy's special prosecutor. Henry Cisneros' special prosecutor. The Clintons' special prosecutor.

Yet the president seems to be surviving the barrage. With eight weeks to go in the campaign, he has a lead in the polls that would have been the envy of "Teflon President" Ronald Reagan. Republican attempts to capitalize on "the character issue" have earned them little except scorn.

The question is why.

Interviews with political professionals, pollsters, partisans in each camp and ordinary voters reveal no single answer.

Partly, voters are weary of political mudslinging -- and no court has found Clinton guilty of anything. Also, with the economy doing well, Americans are not searching for reasons to dump the incumbent. Moreover, neither Bob Dole nor Ross Perot has ignited voters' passions.

Some of the answer pertains to Clinton's skill on the campaign trail and his strong support among female voters -- even those who think he's a rascal.

"He seems sincere," says Pat Frascati, a medical secretary from Baltimore. "Maybe it's because we've become desensitized to bad behavior. Maybe it's because he's so personable he gets away with anything. I have a friend who says she's voting for him because he's 'the lesser of three evils,' but I don't think Dole is evil. I think he's too old."

Nancy Kipp, a 51-year-old schoolteacher from San Diego, Calif., said she stopped reading "Primary Colors," the steamy novel based on Clinton, because she found it too realistic.

"I just didn't want to know those things," she says with a chuckle. Kipp teaches second-graders in a neighborhood school attended mostly by blacks, Hispanics and Asians. She supported Clinton last time, in part because she thought he was sensitive to issues of race. Kipp, who is white, plans to vote for him again.

"Clinton's Teflon surpasses any logical explanation," says Marlin Fitzwater, White House press secretary during the Reagan and Bush administrations. "There isn't a voter who hasn't heard of Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Whitewater, the FBI files and all the rest. There is no president in a hundred years who could have weathered this. It defies political analysis. It takes a psychologist to figure it out."

Sam Gaines of Arlington, Va., is a psychologist. But he's not sure of the reason for Clinton's strength, either. "I believe one part of it," he says, "is that people are sick of the messenger."

He means the news media, which include not only the mainstream press but television attack ads and the supermarket tabloid that broke the story of Clinton adviser Dick Morris' dalliances. Morris himself said at a New Yorker magazine breakfast Thursday that reporters are "prudes," out-of-touch with the swing voters who determine national elections.

Scott Daggett, a Seattle stockbroker, agrees. He says the press should cover issues, not sex lives and that Republicans are making too much of Whitewater.

"If somebody did a multimillion-dollar investigation on me, I'm sure I'd be up a creek, too," says Daggett, who voted for Perot in 1992. This time, he's going with Dole, but he emphasizes that it's because he disagrees with Clinton's policies on the budget.

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake has noticed during focus groups how angry voters become when they think they are being manipulated by personal attacks.

Earlier this year, Lake teamed up with Republican pollster Ed Goeas to probe voters' attitudes toward Dole's and Clinton's characters. Their findings revealed that Americans are not shy about attributing character faults to the president -- while suggesting that Dole would have difficulty translating those doubts into votes.

Told to imagine going into business with either Dole or Clinton, those surveyed were asked: "Who would you rather keep the books?" Respondents chose Dole by 55 percent to 24 percent. But asked who they believed "would be better at selling your product or services, 73 percent chose Clinton while 19 percent named Dole.

Polls have consistently showed that majorities of Americans believe the president and the first lady are hiding facts on issues ranging from Whitewater to the suicide of deputy White House counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr. Asked in a Washington Post/ABC survey whether the president is "honest and trustworthy" or has "high personal moral and ethical standards," a majority of voters said no to both questions. Yet the same polls show Clinton with a lead ranging from 14 to 21 points over Dole on who they plan to vote for.

Dole's advisers complain that their man's reputation for integrity ought to count for more than the president's gift for gab.

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