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  •   Candidates Find Virtue in Chastity Issue

    George Bush
    Gov. George W. Bush
    (Brian K. Diggs – AP)
    By Thomas B. Edsall
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, September 28, 1998; Page A11

    Now that President Clinton's political troubles have put sexual conduct on the nation's consciousness, prospective Republican presidential candidates say there is an issue to be made of sexual abstinence before marriage.

    Texas Gov. George W. Bush is leading the pack. He has initiated what he calls the "Lone Star Leaders" program to "help young people make right choices about drugs and alcohol, tobacco, sex, crime, civic involvement and school."

    A centerpiece of the Bush program is "an aggressive abstinence program," backed up with more than $9 million for local efforts and a statewide media campaign "to encourage young people to save sex for marriage."

    Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.), Family Research Council president Gary L. Bauer, magazine publisher Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes and former vice president Dan Quayle all back premarital chastity, although they vary in the degree of emphasis they place on such initiatives.

    GOP pollsters were divided over the pluses and minuses of sexual issues. "When a candidate does this, he is opening up his own sex life and history to public examination. I'm not sure anyone wants this kind of inquiry. Even a guy who has been pure as the driven snow can end up looking like a wimp," said one pollster, speaking on background.

    On a different tack, the pollster cautioned: "I'm not sure that the Republican Party ought to start fighting the sexual revolution all over again." A colleague argued that people may say they support abstinence, "but they don't want some politician going around telling them how to conduct their sex lives. Once you start calling for abstinence, you are walking a fine line on the question of privacy."

    Bill McInturff, another GOP pollster, countered that three of the top five issues heading the list of most voters' concerns involve the behavior and activities of teenagers and children. In promoting abstinence, politicians should be focusing their message "about programs for junior high school and high school," and make it clear "we are not talking about people in their thirties."

    Republican strategist Tony Fabrizio contended that concerns about making abstinence an issue are unfounded. "Who is going to come out against abstinence? What Democrat is going to disagree with that? If Al Gore came out against abstinence, thank God."

    Gore has, in fact, said that he backs additional funding of abstinence education programs, suggesting that such programs be part of a broader family planning effort including research on contraception.

    While Bush's advocacy of abstinence has caught the most notice, some of his likely competitors for the GOP nomination in 2000 are also aggressively taking up the issue, in part to attract the support of conservative Christian voters, who are expected to play as large a role in the GOP caucuses and primaries.

    "If I get into this, it would be ludicrous if I was going to be trimming my sails," said Bauer, who is making an explicit appeal to social conservatives. "I'm not ashamed at all to talk about that [abstinence]."

    Bauer said that "one of the most emotional things I've done in recent years" was to go to a ceremony at his church "where our daughter stood up, pledged to us that she would remain chaste before marriage, and we [Bauer and his wife] pledged to help her." As part of the ceremony, he said, the parent gives the son or daughter a ring as "a reminder to them about that mutual pledge."

    John Ashcroft
    Sen. John D. Ashcroft (Ray Lustig – The Post)
    Similarly, Ashcroft passed out copies of his book, "Lessons from a Father to His Son," at the Christian Coalition's Road to Victory conference last weekend. The book includes a passage in which Ashcroft describes stopping for a meal at a roadside restaurant where the "tattoo-laden 'fry-chef' " asked him if it was true "that your sex life gets better after you're married?"

    Ashcroft wrote that he stammered, " 'mine sure did' . . . given the fact that I didn't have a sex life before marriage." As he drove away, Ashcroft said he realized that "I should have told this young man, 'I don't have a sex life. I have a love life, of which sex plays an important but private role.' A prostitute has a sex life; a porn star has a sex life; even animals can have a sex life. But a married person has a love life."

    Bush, running for a second term, has already faced the kind of questions that emerge in the climate of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, and in response to his call for abstinence. The widely viewed early front-runner for the GOP nomination has on at least three separate occasions told inquiring reporters from the Dallas Morning News, the Baltimore Sun and the Associated Press that he has been faithful to his wife of 21 years, according to Karen Hughes, Bush campaign communications director.

    Bush's attitude toward women and sex in his youth was substantially different from the chaste views of Ashcroft. "He [Bush] tells people that when he was young and irresponsible, he was young and irresponsible," Hughes said.

    In a statement last month, Bush said: "The question for many people of my generation is, 'Have we learned from our mistakes, and are we willing to teach our children that many of the things we did during the 1970s are wrong and dangerous in the 1990s?' . . . I hope all Texans will help me send a clear message to our children that there is no shame, but honor, in choosing to abstain from sex until marriage."

    Steve Forbes
    Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes.
    (Elise Amenidola – AP)
    Forbes, in turn, has praised the growing abstinence movement. In an article for the Heritage Foundation that he has turned into a small book, "The Moral Basis of a Free Society," Forbes praises an abstinence program run by Elayne Bennett in Washington and cites the National Fatherhood Initiative and the Institute for Responsible Fatherhood and Family Revitalization as organizations seeking to "encourage young men to take parenthood seriously."

    A spokesman for Quayle said, "Vice President Quayle supports sexual abstinence before marriage and thinks that at a matter of public advocacy it's terrific that people are talking about that. You can put him on the record as being supportive."

    Former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, another Republican exploring a bid in 2000, said he supports abstinence, especially Elayne Bennett's program, but "it's not part of what I speak about" on the campaign stump. Instead, he said, he talks about trying to get government "on the side of parents raising children," through tax deductions, school choice and "a culture that is strong and then expects the parents to teach the children by their conduct and their words."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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