Gore's Woes Energize GOP's 2000 Hopefuls
By Edward Walsh
INDIANAPOLISAt a House subcommittee hearing here the other day, Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.) complained that Vice President Gore, or "Mr. Technowhiz" as he called him, was not providing leadership in resolving the year 2000 computer programming problem known as Y2K.
"Unfortunately," replied the hearing's opening witness, millionaire publisher Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes, "he's sweating on other things." The audience laughed knowingly.
For Forbes and other potential Republican presidential contenders in 2000, the fact that Gore is "sweating on other things" be it the evolving fallout from the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal or a preliminary campaign finance investigation centered on the vice president himself is far from unfortunate. Suddenly, Gore, still the clear favorite to win the Democratic nomination, seems less formidable than he did a few months ago and the GOP presidential nomination more enticing.
"This, of course, can all change, but I do think there is a sense out there that Republicans are going to reap big benefits from this and if the Republicans nominate a good candidate, we're going to be in the White House," said GOP consultant Greg Stevens.
President Clinton's admission that he misled the country for seven months about his sexual relationship with former White House intern Lewinsky has changed the political landscape for this year's midterm elections and beyond. Just how it will affect the contests for the major party presidential nominations remains unclear, but it has given the Republican contenders a new weapon to use against what Forbes consistently describes as the "Clinton-Gore administration" and seems certain to make "character" issues more important than ever in the next presidential race.
While many GOP leaders in Congress have been cautious in discussing whether Clinton should resign or be impeached because of the Lewinsky scandal, many of the party's potential presidential nominees have shown no such restraint. Missouri Sen. John D. Ashcroft, who is trying to build a base among social conservatives, has been perhaps the most aggressive.
"I think we've seen the effective end of the Clinton presidency," Ashcroft said in calling for the president's resignation immediately following Clinton's Aug. 17 admission of a sexual relationship with Lewinsky. This week, Ashcroft plans to use a Senate Judiciary subcommittee that he heads to conduct a scholarly discussion of whether a president is subject to criminal prosecution.
Former vice president Dan Quayle, former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander and Gary Bauer, head of the Family Research Council, have joined Ashcroft in calling for Clinton, in Bauer's words, to "spare us the ordeal of a crippled and crippling presidency by resigning." They have done so even though it is conventional wisdom among GOP operatives that the party's chances of capturing the White House in 2000 are better with a wounded Clinton in office than they would be with an incumbent President Gore.
"When they call for his resignation, they probably assume that he won't," Stevens observed.
Harrison Hickman, a Democratic pollster, said it is not surprising that several potential Republican presidential contenders are outspoken advocates of resignation while the party's congressional leadership has been much more reticent.
"They're appealing to different audiences," Hickman said. "The presidential candidates are talking to the nominating electorate. The congressional Republicans are trying to talk to the swing voters for the November elections. They're concerned about going too far. The presidential candidates seem to be concerned about not going far enough."
Forbes, who spent millions of dollars of his own money in an unsuccessful bid for the 1996 nomination, has stopped short of calling for Clinton's resignation but made clear in an interview that he believes a congressional inquiry into the Lewinsky matter "will end up having him leave office."
"I'm not calling for his resignation now, even though I think there's been a real pattern of abuse," Forbes said. "But what I want is for the American people to have an opportunity, like in the early days of Watergate, where you have hearings so people can see for themselves that, yes, something is wrong here. . . . I think the sooner we get away from [independent counsel Kenneth W.] Starr, have him turn over his stuff to this committee, the sooner Congress faces up to its awesome responsibility, the sooner we can resolve this crisis."
Forbes is also among the potential GOP candidates who see the Lewinsky matter as pushing character questions to the forefront of presidential politics, predicting that the 2000 contest will resemble the 1976 campaign, the first post-Watergate presidential election.
Forbes's potential rivals are already talking about character. "People are going to ask the question: Will this person bring dignity or will this person embarrass?" Texas Gov. George W. Bush said shortly after Clinton's Aug. 17 statement.
"We are now finding that it is more than the economy," chimed in Quayle. "It is also character and leadership, trustworthiness, integrity. . . . We are now seeing that character does matter."
Republican strategists are also already mulling over how the Lewinsky scandal might affect politics, not just in November's mid-term elections but in the presidential election that will follow in two years.
"You talk about character, you talk about what all this means to our children," said Stevens, the GOP consultant. "That is something I would advise a Republican candidate for president to talk about. We shouldn't have to turn off the nightly news, we shouldn't be in a position of not talking to our children about what the president is doing. I think that's what Republicans ought to talk about not specific aspects but that we need a country where our kids can watch the news and talk about the president without being embarrassed."
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