WASHINGTON -- With dozens of House races hanging in the balance, the Republican Party is taking dead aim at President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky as part of a final $10 million TV ad blitz.
Tuesday's vote has been called the Impeachment Election, and the results are likely to have a direct influence on Clinton's future. Until now, however, neither political party has been eager to address the volatile issue of Clinton's personal behavior squarely in the campaign.
That changed last night, when the Republican National Committee began airing new anti-Clinton commercials around the country.
One ad features a conversation about the Clinton scandal between two 30-ish women, then praises the Republican Congress for helping to balance the budget and put welfare recipients back to work.
"What did you tell your kids?" asks one woman. "It's wrong. For seven months he lied to us."
Another ad features footage of Clinton's famous finger-wagging denial about having had sexual relations with Lewinsky. It urges the election of Republican candidates "for balance" -- to keep the GOP in charge of Congress while Clinton is in the White House.
A third ad -- airing only in the districts of three southern Democrats: Reps. Bobby R. Etheridge of North Carolina, Sanford D. Bishop Jr. of Georgia and John M. Spratt Jr. of South Carolina -- asks voters whether they want to reward Clinton for "not telling the truth" by electing Democrats to Congress.
"That is the question of this election. Reward Bill Clinton, or vote Republican," the announcer says.
Republican officials denied that the final wave of ads represents an effort to nationalize the election around the issue of Clinton's honesty.
Nor would they concede that it was a gamble that could backfire if it has the unintended effect of energizing Democratic voters.
Its target audience is social and religious conservatives and other Republican base voters, who have been outraged by Clinton's behavior, as well as suburbanites, seniors and other swing voters.
Mary Crawford, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the Clinton scandal is a matter of concern to voters and "if you completely ignore it, your message doesn't ring quite true."
"We determined that we had to acknowledge its existence," she said.
The ads, which will run virtually coast-to-coast in more than 70 media markets over the closing days of the campaign, aren't just about Clinton's behavior. They are also "about the differences between Republicans and Democrats on such things as taxes and spending and the size and scope and reach of government," she said.
A Republican official said party strategists had "been wrestling for weeks with how to handle this," insisting there was never any debate about whether to make the Clinton scandal an issue.
"We were just wrestling about the right way" to do it, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
At least 50 of the 435 House races in Tuesday's election are considered up for grabs.
Politicians in both parties say the Clinton scandal could make a difference of at least a percentage point or two in individual races, either by motivating more Republicans to turn out or causing some Democrats to stay home. That could be enough to tip the outcome of close contests.
Across the country, most candidates have tried to avoid discussing the issue, on the theory that it is simply too emotional and unpredictable and that talking about it risks turning off as many voters as it might attract.
"Everybody's afraid of the issue, because it cuts too many
different ways with too many different people," says Ben Ginsberg, a former Republican National Committee official.
Democratic strategists acknowledge that a recent surge of Democratic support, fed by a backlash against the way the Republican-led Congress is handling the impeachment investigation, has faded.
"Unfortunately, now that Congress is out of session, that time has passed," says Neil Oxman, whose Philadelphia-based consulting firm is advising Democratic candidates in 30 races around the country.
The challenge for Democrats in the closing days of the campaign, he said, is to rekindle the public's anger over the way Congress has handled the impeachment investigation and to generate a bigger Democratic turnout.
A $10 million excuse
Last night, Olivia Morgan, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, called the Republican ad campaign "a $10 million excuse" to cover up for the GOP Congress' failure to address voters' concerns.
National opinion surveys show that many Americans say the Clinton scandal will make a difference in their vote, whether or not the candidates want to talk about it.
Almost half of likely voters in the latest Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll -- 46 percent -- said their vote for Congress next week would send a message about the Lewinsky matter.