October 17, 1996 in Nation/World

Dole Takes His Best Shot But Clinton Ignores Assaults On Character

Peter Slevin And Robert A. Rankin Knight-Ridder
 

Bob Dole got tough and Bill Clinton stayed cool.

The Republican challenger, trailing badly in the polls, spent the final presidential debate attacking President Clinton’s ethics and insisting that Clinton cannot be trusted to keep his word.

Dole, seeking to make Clinton’s integrity the issue, turned question after question from a studio audience into a challenge to Clinton’s presidency.

The first question was about children, but Dole talked ethics.

“There’s no doubt about it that many American people have lost their faith in the government,” Dole said. “They see scandals almost on a daily basis. They see ethical problems in the White House today.”

Clinton, leading by about 15 points in national polls, refused to be drawn into a discussion of specifics, not on the FBI files, not on Whitewater. His style was studied, calm and confident as the topics ranged from health care to welfare reform and affirmative action.

“I don’t want to respond in kind to all these things,” Clinton said after about an hour of Dole’s attacks interspersed between policy discussions. “I could. I could answer all 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. And for four years that’s what I’ve worked on.

“If you give me four years, I’ll work on it some more,” he said. “I’ll try to answer these charges, but I prefer to emphasize direct answers for the future and I gave you direct answers.”

Voters in the audience repeatedly asked the two candidates for specifics on everything from health care to gay rights and tax cuts. Not one asked a question about any of the ethical controversies that have dogged the Clinton administration.

But Dole repeatedly brought them up. He went after the administration for a “bouncer in a bar” collecting FBI files on former Republican White House aides, then called on Clinton to rule out pardoning his former Whitewater business associates.

“The president ought to say tonight he’s not going to pardon anybody he was involved in business with who might implicate him later on,” said Dole, who in the first debate had said Clinton should just say “no comment” when asked about the subject.

And in another swipe, Dole promised: “When I’m president of the United States, I will keep my word. My word is my bond.”

Clinton seemed to be trying to rise above the jabs and appear presidential by talking about his efforts to bring people together after the Oklahoma City bombing and the burning of black churches in the South.

The president relied on his greatest skill - talking directly to people. As he did four years ago, Clinton walked toward audience members, looking at individuals in the eye as he spoke and, occasionally, repeating their first names.

The president said at the outset he wanted to “make this a discussion of ideas and issues, not insults. What really happens to your future and what happens to our country as we stand on the brink of a new century.”

Dole’s performance, hard-nosed and aggressive, was in marked contrast from the first presidential debate earlier this month. Then, Dole shied away every time he got the chance to attack, choosing instead to focus on his own tax-cut plan.

Political scientist Barbara Kellerman of the University of Maryland, a specialist in leadership, said Dole handled the town-meeting format better than expected. However, her conclusion was that he probably did not damage Clinton enough to make a difference in the race.

Kellerman said she thought Clinton probably did well by ignoring Dole’s attacks on ethics. “I don’t think Dole wounded Clinton nearly enough to have people say, ‘Oh my God, why didn’t he respond?’ This may do a blip in the ratings, but the idea that it will turn the race on its head seems to me far-fetched.”

“Obviously Dole was kind of on a testosteronal high in the beginning,” said University of Texas professor Roderick Hart, director of a computerized study of past and present presidential campaign rhetoric, referring to Dole’s early attacks on Clinton’s character.

Dole did a good job of matching Clinton’s relaxed town-hall-forum style, Hart said, and probably convinced some voters that he’s a nicer guy than they thought.

“Dole was far more comfortable in this setting than George Bush was,” Hart said. ” He was much better attuned to meeting people face to face. He could never get quite as close as Clinton. He could never be quite as affable or quite as relaxed, because after all, this is Clinton’s forte. But all in all, he did very well.”

Dole took every opportunity to jab at Clinton. For instance, when he was asked by a serviceman about raising military pay, Dole noted that he was “a former military man myself.” His intention clearly was to draw attention to the fact that Clinton had avoided military service in Vietnam.

Clinton, on the other hand, stressed his record, such as taking on the powerful tobacco lobby to ban advertising cigarettes to teenagers.

During the 90-minute debate, the candidates disagreed on a number of topics, including defense spending, prayer in school, a balanced budget, health reform, affirmative action, welfare, Medicare, education, crime and family leave. They did agree that Dole, 73, was not too old to be president - but not on whether he would make a good chief executive.

“I can only tell you that I don’t think Sen. Dole is too old to be president,” Clinton said, after Dole said his age gave him wisdom. “It’s the age of his ideas that I question.

“You’re almost not old enough to remember this, but we’ve tried this before,” the president told a youthful questioner, “promising people an election-year tax cut that’s not paid for.”

To which Dole, almost under his breath, asserted: “We tried it last time you ran.”

Dole, in a common refrain, added: “When you don’t have any ideas, I guess you say the other person’s ideas are old.”

The differences between the candidates - in both style and substance - were underscored in their closing statements. Dole harkened to the past, saying it was the “highest honor” for a man who grew up in a basement in Russell, Kan., and who is forced by a disability to use a button-hook to get dressed, to run for president. And, he said alluding to the scandals he talked about all night, voters should be “proud” of their chosen candidate.

Clinton responded by pointing out that he is the son of a widowed mother, but turned quickly to the future. He said the distinctions between the candidates were great - that Dole wanted people to fend for themselves and Clinton wanted them to enter the 21st century together.

Dole charged that “we have the worst economy of a century.” But in a century that included the Great Depression, the oil price shocks of the ‘70s and the inflation of the early ‘80s, Dole’s characterization of the economy did not ring true.

The economic picture under Clinton has been mixed - but certainly not bleak. The Dow Jones average just topped 6,000. More than 10 million new jobs have been created, and unemployment and inflation are both low. Yet wage growth has remained fairly flat and household income has not rebounded to the level it enjoyed before the 1990-1991 recession.

Many economists give Clinton credit for moving to reduce the deficit early in his term. That helped the recovery by easing pressure on interest rates. The Republican Congress has also gotten credit for helping to keep up pressure for reducing the deficit.

Clinton stretched the facts in claiming that he “strongly supported campaign finance reform.” The president has indeed spoken in favor of reform, but he has not pushed any reform initiatives. In early 1995 he struck an agreement with House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia to create a bipartisan commission to make recommendations for reform - but neither man followed through, and the commission has not been named.

xxxx They said it … Dole: “There’s no doubt about it that many American people have lost their faith in the government. They see scandals almost on a daily basis. They see ethical problems in the White House today.” Clinton: “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. And for four years, that’s what I’ve worked on.”

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