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Republicans Protest Dole's Silence On Clinton Administration's Ethics

By Dan Balz
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

Bob Dole's advisers always claimed that a reputation for integrity was one of their candidate's greatest attributes. Now, after two debates in which neither Dole nor running mate Jack Kemp questioned the ethics of the Clinton administration, many Republicans are wondering why the Dole campaign has failed to make the case against the president.

"There's been a part of the (Dole) campaign that is obsessive about not appearing critical, about not appearing judgmental, as if it is more important to be nice than to win," former Education Secretary William Bennett said Thursday, "Nothing against nice, but nice here has become soft-headed - and diffident - about central issues."

Bennett's public grumbling reflected growing disillusionment among Republicans that Dole and Kemp have walked away from issues they believe cry out for public discussion, from Travelgate and Filegate to Whitewater pardons, ongoing investigations of Cabinet officers and the recent reports about the Clinton campaign's fund-raising connections with an Asian conglomerate.

These Republicans argue that those are areas of public character and trust that are entirely legitimate areas for discussion.

In his first debate with Clinton on Sunday night, Dole was asked if there were any personal difference between him and Clinton he wanted to discuss. He declined, although at another point he raised questions about the president's position on pardons for his former Whitewater business partners.

Tuesday, Dole appeared to shift gears with a harsh new radio ad, an off-handed, disparaging remark about Clinton and interviews with television networks during which, in response to questions from reporters about whether he considered Clinton ethically fit to be president, Dole said it was "a very close question." What was not clear was whether his comments represented a shift in strategy or the confluence of unrelated events.

In his debate with Vice President Al Gore on Wednesday, Kemp was asked whether he wanted to draw any "personal or ethical differences" between Clinton and Dole. "In my opinion, it is beneath Bob Dole to go after anyone personally," Kemp said. From there the debate moved into economics and other issues.

Kemp's performance drew harsh reviews from many Republicans Thursday. They complained that he not only failed to respond to a number of Gore's attacks against the party and Dole, but also that he passed up the chance to shift the opening question from private behavior to public morality. Even Dole appeared less-than-satisfied with the tenor of the St. Petersburg debate, saying in an interview taped for ABC's "Nightline" that the Gore-Kemp encounter looked "like a fraternity picnic for awhile."

Dole aides quickly tried to squelch suggestions Thursday that their candidate was unhappy with Kemp or that Kemp had failed to follow a game plan that would have put some of these ethical issues on the table.

"There may have been some rehearsed lines that weren't delivered, but big deal," said communications director John Buckley, adding, "If Bob Dole was looking for someone who was to poke Bill Clinton in the eye, he would have chosen a different kind of running mate."

But other Republicans said both Kemp and Dole had missed their best opportunities - and biggest audiences - to question Clinton's ethical conduct.

"What's annoying is they've given away the character issue because they're too witless to address it," said William Kristol, a Republican theorist and editor of the Weekly Standard. "You don't have to be ham-handed and crude to raise issues about Clinton's trustworthiness and ethical standards of the Clinton administration."

But Dole's top aides defended the candidate and their strategy. "When we talk about character, we talk about issues," said campaign manager Scott Reed. "It's issue-related. Taxes, spending, drugs are all issues that the president has said one thing and done the exact opposite."

"If there's an opportunity to discuss failures of the administration, such as their civil liberties armageddon in Filegate or their witchhunt in Travelgate, we may well take them," Buckley said.

"I haven't figured out what they're doing, and I don't think they know what they're doing," one Republican strategist said. "Last week it was liberal, liberal, liberal.' Now it's trust, trust, trust.' With Dole taking a pass and Kemp taking a pass, how do they make it work? Now Clinton has a good argument for desperation."

That was exactly the line the administration was pushing Thursday. With an eye on the final presidential debate next Wednesday, the Clinton campaign happily trumpeted Kemp's statement Wednesday that any personal attacks would be "beneath Bob Dole."