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Dole Opens Up Broad Attack On Clinton's Ethics in Debate

By John M. Broder and Maria L. LaGanga
Los Angeles Times
SAN DIEGO

Republican Bob Dole, trailing badly with time running short, opened the final debate of the 1996 presidential campaign with a broad attack on President Clinton's ethics and integrity, but seemed to hesitate in pressing the attack as the 90-minute encounter continued.

Getting scarcely a rise out of Clinton, the Republican challenger said the actions of the president and many of his subordinates had deepened public cynicism and debased the office of the president.

"There's no doubt about it that many American people have lost their faith in government," Dole said in response to a schoolteacher's question about the values public figures impart to the nation's children.

"They see scandals almost on a daily basis, they see ethical problems in the White House today," said Dole, citing more than two dozen administration officials investigated or indicted and the case of 900 FBI files of former government officials improperly obtained by a White House aide.

Dole suggested repeatedly that Clinton had abandoned promises or adopted stands merely as election-year ploys to win votes.

"When I'm president," he insisted, "I will keep my word. My word is my bond."

It was a carefully prepared set of attacks that Dole has been rehearsing all week, and it drew an equally well-rehearsed response. Clinton barely deigned to respond to Dole's attacks, instead reminding the audience at the University of San Diego's Shiley Theater of Republican efforts to cut popular government programs and of the economic progress made during his tenure.

In among those recitations, however, he twice responded with a line that expressed more sorrow than anger at Dole's charges.

"I don't want to respond in kind to all these things," Clinton said halfway through the debate, sounding almost indulgent of his older opponent. "I could. I could answer a lot of these things tit for tat. But I hope we can talk about what we're going to do in the future. No attack ever created a job or educated a child or helped a family make ends meet. No insult ever cleaned up a toxic waste dump or helped an elderly person.

"Now for four years, that's what I've worked on. If you'll give me four years more, I'll work on it some more."

But as the debate went on, Dole's fire grew less sustained - deterred, perhaps, by Clinton's unwillingness to engage in an exchange on ethics and morality as well as the tone, substance and town-hall format of the questioning.

Eleven times Dole referred to "his word" being more trustworthy than the president's, but at times, his ripostes seemed almost cryptic.

In response to a question about the millions of Americans alienated by the political process, for example, Dole said he knew of no perfect solution to the problem of low voter participation. Then he added, almost as an aside: "Campaign finance (reform) might help, might help contributions coming in from Indonesia or other foreign countries, rich people in those countries, and then being sent back after the L.A. Times discovers it - $250,000."

Dole did not explain his reference, but was apparently referring to a campaign contribution to the Democratic National Committee by Cheong Am Business Group, a South Korean company. The DNC refunded the money when notified that Cheong Am, because it earned no income in the United States, was not qualified to contribute to American political campaigns.

But Clinton did not respond to Dole's assertion and the matter did not come up again.

Early on in the debate, a young female undergraduate at the University of California, San Diego, asked Dole a question that many voters appear to have in their minds - whether, at age 73, he could relate to the concerns of young people. In one of his defter responses, he said he thought his age gave him an advantage.

"You know, wisdom comes from age, experience and intelligence. And if you have some of each - and I have some age, some experience and some intelligence - that adds up to wisdom," he said to gentle laughter from the audience.

Clinton replied that he didn't think his opponent was too old to be president. "It's the age of his ideas that I question," Clinton said.

Dole noted that thousands of high-paying manufacturing jobs had been lost during Clinton's presidency and that California had been particularly hard hit by cutbacks in defense spending.