Where Trial Is 'Red Meat,' Ashcroft Isn't Indulging
By Jon Jeter
"Our senators stood up for what they believed in," Rep. Roy Blunt (R) said to loud applause Saturday. "I think," said Rep. James M. Talent (R), "that what we did in the end will wear very well."
That kind of rhetoric is like "red meat" here, one GOP official said, gobbled up by the mostly die-hard conservatives sitting in the audience. But Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.) doesn't serve up any.
Armed with charts and graphs, he talks in an almost professorial tone about tax cuts, education and getting tough on crime. Of the six GOP officials appearing at this public forum, he is the only one who does not utter a word about impeachment.
Facing a tough reelection bid, the impeachment hawk has turned policy wonk. Ashcroft was one of the first Republicans on Capitol Hill to call for Clinton to step down. If the doggedly conservative Ashcroft resembled a fire-and-brimstone preacher in his criticisms of the president nearly a year ago, he resembles a Sunday school teacher now, steering clear of the scandal in both interviews and remarks to constituents. He prefers, he said, to look forward.
"The issue has been resolved. I think people want to move past it," he said in an interview.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is gunning for Ashcroft's seat, and he knows it. Democrats say polls show Ashcroft's outspokenness on impeachment has weakened him politically, and his is one of the most vulnerable Senate GOP seats up for reelection in 2000.
Ashcroft's aides say their polls show otherwise, and moreover, the senator said the political campaign is a distant consideration at this point.
But it is clear, his aides acknowledge, that the challenge facing Ashcroft heading into the election cycle is to redefine himself for the voters who may have come to associate him with an impeachment effort that was largely unpopular.
So, at Missouri's Lincoln Days, a two-day gathering of Republicans here, Ashcroft rarely mentioned what was once a favorite topic. While his colleagues and many in the audience repeatedly praised his efforts to hold the president accountable for his misbehavior, the senator himself all but hit the mute button on such talk.
"I believe that I can walk tall because my senators voted the right way," Barbara Ladesich of Kansas City said.
Such remarks produced only a polite nod from the senator. But when a constituent asked a general question about national debt, Ashcroft turned animated, all but leaping from his chair and pouncing on the podium to explain his proposal to eliminate the federal government's debt over a 30-year period.
Ashcroft said that even the most strident conservatives in his state are weary of impeachment. His public pronouncements reflect their concerns. Missouri, for instance, has a disproportionately large number of illegal methamphetamine labs, and Ashcroft proposes cracking down on dealers of the synthetic drugs.
Tremendously popular, the former attorney general and two-time governor captured nearly 60 percent of the vote in his last two electoral bids. In his 1994 campaign for the Senate, he won every county in the state and weighed running for president until abandoning the idea last month.
Still, most everyone here agrees that he will likely have a difficult time holding on to his seat, both because of a backlash from impeachment and because his likely opponent will be popular Gov. Mel Carnahan (D).
Still, Ashcroft's contention that Missouri voters have turned their attention to matters other than impeachment is reinforced by his appearance at Lincoln Days. During the ice cream social that has become an annual event for Ashcroft, no one asked him about the issue during the 90 minutes that the senator scooped vanilla ice cream for guests.
And Republicans here suspect that Carnahan has stumbled out of the gate. The question most asked of Ashcroft here is about Carnahan's decision last month to commute a convicted killer's death sentence after Pope John Paul II made a personal plea for mercy.
Ashcroft has said that the sentence should have been commuted only for a legal flaw, and Carnahan's decision has upset conservatives, victims' rights advocates and the victim's family. Virtually everyone here expects this to be more of a campaign issue than Clinton's misconduct.
"I think our senators did the right thing," said Ladesich of Kansas City. "But it's time to put it to rest now and move on, and that's exactly what I think you'll see them do. They're good politicians."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company